This is the year of the big-gun quarterback in college football, a fact made clear to the Oklahoma Sooners by USC at the Los Angeles Coliseum Saturday. If you don't have a full-fledged rocket launcher under center this year, you belong in the Big Eight, or, horrors, the Big Ten. You don't mean a thing if you ain't got that fling.
There's no national championship in your immediate future, that's for sure, which Oklahoma learned as USC socked the Sooners 23-7. The UCLA Troy Aikmans already had rolled up Nebraska's rugs, Steve Walsh and the Miami Hurricanes had turned Florida State and Michigan into fairy tales, and the Gamecocks of Todd Ellis pecked Georgia's ground-bound Dawgs to death. Only the quarterback-elite teams are undefeated and likely to stay that way for a while. No, we're not forgetting Notre Dame, but just imagine if the Irish had Rodney Peete....
This is Year 2 in the era of the quarterback at USC. For season after season, the first USC plays from scrimmage in any game could have been mailed in—28 Toss and 22 Blast, the signatures of Tailback U. How times have changed. The Trojan fricassee of the Sooners began with a typical Peete blue plate special: two neat rollout jobs as Rockin' Rodney zipped a square out on the right for 14 yards to his favorite target, Erik Affholter (eight catches for 94 yards), then kept around left end for 11 more.
True, tailback Aaron Emanuel scored both of the Trojan touchdowns (Quin Rodriguez kicked three field goals and two PATs for the rest of USC's points)—on a five-yard run in the first quarter and a six-yard burst in the second—and he rushed for 46 yards in 10 carries before leaving the game at halftime with a sprained right ankle. But it was Peete's passing (16 of 34 for 198 yards, with seven third-down conversions) and quick feet (six rushes for 40 yards) that set the table for the tailback. The Trojans came out in a formation called A and B, a variation of its once-hallowed I, with bullnecked fullback Leroy Holt offset to the left or right. Call it the Hungry I.
"We put it in this week," said Peete. "It gets the fullback [blocking] on that defensive end earlier." Peete took advantage of the extra angle, marching USC to a 20-0 halftime lead. "It was easier than we thought it would be," Peete said. "But we missed things. It could've been much worse."
"Peete won the game by keeping the ball away from us," said the subdued Sooner coach, Barry Switzer, who knew he was asking for trouble when he came to town with a defense featuring five sophomores and a freshman. "You can't go undefeated every year," he said. "Even I know that. We fought like hell, but Peete's execution .and ball control took us out."
This is no passing phenomenon for the Trojans; when Peete leaves USC this spring, he won't be taking the position with him. The Trojans have one of the most sought-after high school quarterbacks in history in freshman Todd Marinovich, a lefthanded gun. And Marinovich is not even Peete's backup. That job belongs to Pat O'Hara, a sophomore who redshirted in 1986.
"Marinovich has just a great touch in the passing game," says coach Larry Smith. "He could well be our guy by next year, though it's going to be a battle." Smith would like Peete to take all the snaps and the glory this season so Marinovich can be redshirted retroactively and have four years left to break Peete's records. Make it four long years if you're not a USC aficionado.
Marinovich is apprentice to a player with character. Peete is a personable two-sport wonder, a major league prospect as a third baseman (.338, All—Pac-10) who turned down a reported $100,000 contract from the Oakland As to stay close to USC this summer. "The A's didn't mind me not playing," says Peete. "They said, 'Just sign, Rodney. You don't have to play, just sign so we don't lose your rights.' " Peete declined, citing his promise to his parents that he would graduate from USC on time. "Which do I prefer? Both," says Peete. "Third base is all throwing and reaction anyway." Sounds like an unspecified preference—or John Elway—from here.
With Peete at the controls, the Trojan offense has become richly varied, a balanced mix of running and passing. With 11:34 left in the Oklahoma game and USC leading comfortably, 20-7, the Trojans had a run-pass ratio of nearly 50-50, while Oklahoma was throwing the ball on fewer than one out of four plays. At the end, USC had kept the ball for almost 37 minutes, while Oklahoma had it for just over 23.
The Sooners' reputation, like USC's, was built on rock-solid defenses and strong legs in the running game. Just as the USC I required tailbacks like Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson and Marcus Allen to make it surge, the Oklahoma wishbone demands the presence of a Billy Sims, a Joe Washington or a Greg Pruitt as the pitch man—especially if the surrounding talent is less experienced. Anthony Stafford, Eric Mitchel and Mike Gaddis are not of that ilk, but these were the cards that Oklahoma quarterbacks Jamelle Holieway and Charles Thompson had to play. Know when to fold 'em, Sooners. With two weeks to prepare—the Trojans had the previous Saturday off after opening with victories over Boston College and Stanford—a defense of USC's caliber will stop a Sims-less wishbone, no matter how skillfully the quarterback can play.
"We just didn't execute as a team," said Holieway after the Trojans crashed his options, blocked his sightlines, sacked him, intercepted him and left him limp on the sidelines. This was a homecoming of sorts for Holieway, who had played high school football in nearby Wilmington and was recruited by USC as a defensive back, and whose best friend is Holt, the Trojan fullback.
"I played my game," said Holieway, who did direct a most un-Sooner-like drive at the start of the second half—80 yards in 73 seconds, with 48 of those yards coming on a bomb to split end Eric Bross, who was tackled on the Trojan two-yard line. Fullback Leon Perry scored from there to avoid what otherwise would have been the first Sooner shutout since 1983. On the long pass to Bross, Holieway's play-fake to Stafford was a thing of beauty, fooling everybody on the field and nearly everyone in the stands. "For the most part, they attacked," said Holieway. "They came up like they were supposed to. They played their game and we played ours. And they were better."
Thompson had his opportunity to face the Trojan bonebreakers in the fourth quarter. He was intercepted three times, operating out of Oklahoma's drop-back offense—or as close as Oklahoma can come to one. No wonder that Mitchel—certainly as good an athlete as Holieway or Thompson—uttered no complaints when Switzer switched him from quarterback to halfback last season. "It was for the best," said Mitchel's mom, Erma. "There aren't too many Oklahoma wishbone quarterbacks in the NFL."
The USC defense could make any quarterback look bad, but its pressure and pursuit revealed Holieway and Thompson as vulnerable and painfully one-dimensional. "We stopped the option from inside out, starting with the dive, then Jamelle with a man-and-a-half, then the pitch," said Trojan defensive coordinator Chris Allen. "Don Gibson [the nose guard] made them double-team him. It all started from there. And it was all downhill from there."
Allen had instituted something called the "Psycho" defense as an occasional tactic in his strong option defensive scheme, and he had enough hellions playing linebacker to make the sobriquet seem appropriate. The Psycho calls not for reading keys but for blasting through them, "We tried to attack and not wait on them," said Smith. Holieway was picking Trojan linebackers Scott Ross, Junior Seau, Michael Williams, Delmar Chesley and Craig Hartsuyker out of his teeth all day. The Sooners, who had rushed for 656 yards in their first two games, netted but 89 yards on the ground against the Trojans. "We didn't expect to dominate the way we did, but we did," said Ross.
"Our defense stayed on the field too long," sighed a Sooner defensive lineman Darrell Kirby. "That doggone Peete took the whole third quarter. It was a dogfight, but they were up in Jamelle's face all day, so he couldn't do anything but eat it."
The problem with the wishbone is that the defense can bring one more man to the ball than you can block or one more man than you can option. Having a Billy Sims evens things out a bit, but in the absence of a Sims, disaster can strike. Saturday it came in the form of Trojan defensive backs. Smith had fretted before the game about the physical condition of safeties Mark (Aircraft) Carrier and Cleveland (Cadillac) Colter. "They play so hard, they're always banged up," said Smith. The coach need not have worried. His safeties hit Sooners from pillar to post, taking the pitch man out or stopping up Holieway's running lanes and doing it emphatically. "Once I even got scared," said Switzer. "It looked like they were coming at me. I thought I was going to catch another knee." (Switzer was decked on the sidelines last year against Missouri.)
The Southern Cal defensive backs sat together after the game, holding three of the five game balls given out. Peete got one, of course, and linebacker Williams took one as the scariest of the Psychos. But cornerback Chris Hale received two, one for each of the passes he picked off, and Colter got one for his fourth-quarter interception. The secondary made 21 tackles overall.
"The only way they were going to score on us was with trick plays," said Colter. "We sent five men on the dive, two men on the pitch and two on the corner on every play. We matched them talent for talent and then some."
"No, Cadillac," said Carrier, "we outmatched them."
No, Aircraft. Overmatched them.
But this was only the third game of the season, and USC's schedule is not made of goosedown, so there will be plenty of chances for even matches. The Pac-10 awaits, including Washington at home, both Arizona schools on the road and UCLA in the Rose Bowl on Nov. 19. For good measure, USC meets Notre Dame in the Coliseum one week after the Bruins.
After the Oklahoma game Peete brushed at the scattering of gray that has sprouted in his hair. "It takes its toll," said the quarterback who on his second play from scrimmage overtook a tailback, Charles White, to become the alltime total offense leader in USC history. "But I like it this way. We don't play any Long Beach States or San Diego States." Peete is calculating in just about everything he does, so this little barb was something for UCLA, which played both, to chew on. He'd already left a bad taste in the Sooners' mouths.