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Ground greatness

LINCOLN, Neb. -- During an injury timeout early in the second quarter of Saturday night's USC-Nebraska game, with the Trojans waiting to begin a drive from the Huskers' 45-yard-line, head coach Pete Carroll called his starting offensive linemen together and issued a simple directive: "We're going to run the ball every time until we score."

Five handoffs later, fullback Stanley Havili crossed the goal line to put USC up 14-10.

By halftime, the top-ranked Trojans had amassed more rushing yards (205) than they did any game last season. By the middle of the third quarter, they'd gone up 42-10. And by the time the final gun sounded, they'd outrushed the 14th-ranked Huskers by a staggering 313 to 31 margin.

"We could run the football any time we wanted," marveled Caroll following a 49-31 victory that was decided long before the Huskers tacked on two garbage-time touchdowns. "In the second half, the defense rose up and came up with a couple of huge plays, the [offensive] line took the game over and the game was done."

Remember when the running game was the biggest question mark for these Trojans? Of course you do. It was yesterday.

Guess you can scratch that one.

In a stadium that's seen its share of overpowering rushing performances -- more commonly by the home team -- USC's running game was so powerful Saturday that, "we didn't have to throw the ball at all," said Carroll. Indeed, Trojans quarterback John David Booty (19-of-30, 144 yards, two touchdowns), who entered the season as one of the nation's leading Heisman candidates, got upstaged by Stafon Johnson, who entered fall camp as the Trojans' seventh-string tailback.

Most impressively, USC did it exactly the same way their opponent did for decades on this same, Memorial Stadium field: with an overpowering offensive line opening gaping holes for its runners.

"I haven't seen holes as big as those since I've been here," Johnson declared following an eye-opening 11-carry, 144-yard performance. "I was like a kid at a candy store."

Johnson, a sophomore who barely saw the field last season due to a rough acclimation, averaged a staggering 13.1 yards per carry Saturday night -- and somehow it was only the third-highest average on his team. (Starter C.J. Gable averaged 17.2 yards on four carries, while Havili opened the game with a 50-yard run to finish with a cool, two-carry average of 26.0.) "Those are crazy numbers," said Carroll.

USC fans had been waiting for nearly two years -- since the departure of standouts Reggie Bush and LenDale White -- for one of their umpteen touted tailbacks to deliver a breakout performance the way Johnson did Saturday.

Johnson's ascension from practice afterthought to primetime standout was as much a process of elimination as it was progress on Johnson's part. Of the six tailbacks listed above him prior to the season, seniors Chauncey Washington and Hershel Dennis sustained injuries, sophomore Emmanuel Moody transferred to Florida and injury-plagued senior Desmond Reed was never really a viable candidate. Touted true freshman Joe McKnight has also been limited by injury.

But both Carroll and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said Johnson -- the most highly touted of the four freshman tailbacks USC brought in a year ago -- has come a long way since last year, when his work ethic and practice habits simply weren't up to the acceptable standard.

"Stafon's really something," said Carroll. "He just didn't have the right mentality to compete with the other guys [last year]. He just wasn't a good player. But we knew better. We'd seen the tapes."

On the first play of a late second-quarter touchdown drive in which he accounted for 60 of USC's 73 yards, Johnson showed nifty footwork in spinning away from a defender who appeared to have him stopped at the line and turning it into a 9-yard gain. On some plays, he juked his way into the open the field, others he simply ran past people.

But on numerous occasions, he ran untouched straight through the middle of Nebraska's defense thanks to holes the size of Kansas. Interestingly, they came not on the left side of the line, where USC's All-American tackle, Sam Baker, presides, but on the right side, where he was running between junior guard Chilo Rachal and -- get this -- a true freshman center, Kristofer O'Dowd.

It was the USC line's most powerful performance since their 2005 regular-season finale against UCLA, a 66-19 win in which QB Matt Leinart was visibly off but Bush and White combined for 414 yards.

"Back in 2005, we used to get in a zone where everyone was on the same page," said Baker. "That's what this reminded me of."

The Trojans' first big win of 2007 wasn't entirely flawless. Executing a series of quick-drop strikes to his receivers, Nebraska QB Sam Keller found success early against the USC's defense, going 14-of-26 for 172 yards in the first half. But the defense adjusted, and once the Trojans began to achieve penetration (DT Sedrick Ellis surged through the line to knock Keller down in milliseconds on one play), Keller began to crack, throwing several tipped balls and two interceptions. His final passing yardage of 369 was deceiving -- he tacked on 140 during two late-game touchdown drives against USC's reserves.

Meanwhile, it was evident that Booty is not entirely in synch yet with his new receiving corps - Dwayne Jarrett-replacement Patrick Turner, who missed the Trojans' opener against Idaho and had been withheld from contact during practices, dropped three open passes and fumbled another. Carroll did not seem particularly concerned.

"John David would have had a great passing game if [Turner] didn't drop those passes," said the coach. "The play-actions were wide open and [Booty] made the throws."

USC's coaches and players were asked repeatedly after Saturday's game whether they felt they'd "made a statement" to those around the nation who have been questioning whether a different team - LSU? Oklahoma? -- should have been elevated to No. 1 last week. They seemed about as interested in the topic as they did questions about Nebraska's "mystique" the week leading up to the game. "I haven't given a second thought to it," said Carroll.

Asked specifically about their running performance, however, and eyes almost universally lit up.

"We made up our minds that we were going to show everybody what kind of running team we can be," said Rachal. "We love running the ball."

So now, the biggest question isn't whether the Trojans have capable running backs -- it's how they plan to use them from here. Johnson and Gable have obviously risen to the top of the class (for now), but Washington, now that he's healthy, isn't going anywhere, either, and the much-touted McKnight will eventually get more opportunities.

"Ultimately, we'd like to get to a 1-2 punch," said Sarkisian. "But until these guys separate themselves, we're going to roll them all through and ride the guy that's hot."

Saturday night, that was all of them.

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