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Can Anybody Beat USC?

Oct. 17, 2005
Oct. 17, 2005

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Oct. 17, 2005

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Can Anybody Beat USC?

The two-time defending champion Trojans have won 27 straight, but they can be knocked off ... can't they?

This isn't rocket science, people. We're making this much more complicated than it needs to be. As the college football season hits the halfway point, the biggest question is this: Can anyone beat two-time defending national champion Southern California? Actually, there are any number of ways to knock off the top-ranked Trojans, to terminate the winning streak they extended to 27 games with their ho-hum 42-21 victory over Arizona last Saturday. ¬∂ Most Angelenos know that fifth-year USC quarterback Matt Leinart is close friends with Nick Lachey, whose publicist has been working overtime denying that the former second tenor for 98° is splitting with his wife, Jessica Simpson. But what if there's something to the rumors that Lachey has been crashing at Leinart's apartment? What if, to get his buddy through these tough times, Leinart stays up late, nodding sympathetically as Lachey wonders what happened to the simple, down-home girl with whom he starred in the MTV reality show Newlyweds? What if, in trying to buck up his friend--assuring Lachey, for instance, that his 2003 solo album, SoulO, was a profoundly underappreciated work--Leinart loses too much sleep? He starts nodding off during film sessions, yawning his way through practice. His preparation suffers. The streak is doomed.

This is an article from the Oct. 17, 2005 issue Original Layout

Sure, there are more prosaic ways to take down the Trojans. The problem is, none of the tactics used by Southern Cal's opponents have been working. USC's last loss came in Berkeley on Sept. 27, 2003, when Cal's Tyler Fredrickson nailed a 38-yard field goal in the third overtime, snapping the Trojans' winning streak at 11 games. The Bears' quarterback that day was Aaron Rodgers, who is now backing up Brett Favre in Green Bay. Asked recently how to beat the national champs, Rodgers tendered several suggestions, starting with:

•KEEP THEIR OFFENSE OFF THE FIELD

Rodgers did his part last October by completing an NCAA-record-tying 23 straight passes in Cal's 23-17 loss at the L.A. Coliseum. While most of those throws were dinks that did no great harm, they moved the chains and kept Leinart & Co. on the bench; the Bears held the ball for 37:11 and ran 79 plays to USC's 50. When the Trojans' offense is on the field, Rodgers adds, "make 'em one-dimensional. Make them run, or make them throw, and take the other one away."

That's what Cal tried to do last season, as it undertook one of the most difficult missions in college football:

•CONTAIN REGGIE BUSH

That refrain, so often spouted by USC opponents whom Bush then proceeds to eviscerate, calls to mind Mark Twain's observation, "Everyone complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it." The Bears didn't merely talk about corralling Bush; they did it by rejecting one of the basic tenets of defensive football.

"Some teams just emphasize gang tackling," says Cal defensive line coach Ken Delgado. In trying to bring Bush down, all 11 Bears defenders did not fly to the ball. "Every time he gets a touch, it's like a kickoff," says Delgado. "You have to be very conscious of your pursuit lanes." Rather than converge on him, the Cal players not closest to Bush remained evenly spaced on the field, making them better positioned to deal with what Delgado describes as his "radical cuts and reverses of field." The strategy worked. The Bears limited Bush to 23 rushing yards on eight carries.

Be careful what you wish for, though. Taking away the run against the Trojans means you intend to:

•MAKE A HEISMAN TROPHY WINNER

BEAT YOU WITH HIS ARM

This can be accomplished--in theory--by blitzing relentlessly, forcing Leinart to unload quickly, before he has time to read the coverage. Arizona State did a splendid job of this in charging to a 21-3 halftime lead over the Trojans on Oct. 1. The Sun Devils mixed soft zone coverage with zone blitzes and man-to-man. Sometimes the blitz came, other times the linebackers and defensive backs crowding the line dropped into coverage. "We did both, out of so many different fronts," recalls Arizona State linebacker Dale Robinson, "that it was tough for them to figure out when we were coming." Though he was sacked just twice, Leinart was repeatedly drilled. In the process the Sun Devils came close to achieving the unspoken goal of all USC opponents:

•KNOCK LEINART OUT OF THE GAME

Or at least knock him out, which is what Arizona State linebacker Robert James tried to do in the first quarter. Two plays after dropping number 11, James hit him late, driving the crown of his helmet under Leinart's chin and pile-driving him to the ground. James was flagged for a personal foul--in the NFL he would've been fined five figures for the hit--but that was a worthwhile trade-off for the Sun Devils. They lost 15 yards of field position; Leinart lost about 25 points off his football I.Q. Though he returned to the game two plays later, Leinart admitted afterward that he was not "all there" and was later found to have a mild concussion. Between the cobwebs in his head and the dizzying array of looks Arizona State threw at him, the quarterback had a tough day at the office, failing to throw a touchdown pass for only the second time in 30 games. Unable to get anything going, USC was down 18 points at halftime. The streak, it appeared, was about to end.

But the biggest upset in Sun Devils history turned into the Trojans' biggest comeback in 31 years because ASU could not:

•ADJUST TO USC'S ADJUSTMENTS

"Everybody talks about their great players," says Jerry Glanville, the black-clad former NFL head coach now serving as defensive coordinator at Hawaii, which lost to the Trojans 63-17 on Sept. 3. "The fact is, they'd be pretty good if they didn't have great players." Such is Glanville's regard for USC coach Pete Carroll and his staff, renowned for their spot-on halftime adjustments. When you're down 18 points in the second half, conventional wisdom dictates that you air the ball out. Carroll and his play-callers--offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and quarterbacks coach Steve Sarkisian--did precisely the opposite against Arizona State, putting the game, and the streak, in the hands of Bush, LenDale White and the offensive line.

With Thunder (White) and Lightning (Bush) gashing ASU for huge gains--the two tailbacks combined for 264 rushing yards in the second half--the Sun Devils brought up a safety in run support, leaving their defensive backs in man coverage. Kiffin and Sarkisian countered with play-action passes to fullback David Kirtman, who had three receptions for 57 yards during a second half in which USC outscored the home team 35-7. Final score: 38-28. "Name off all their weapons," Arizona State coach Dirk Koetter said afterward, "and nobody out there would be saying, 'You've got to stop the fullback.'"

Carroll and five of his assistants have a combined 52 seasons coaching or playing in the NFL, where halftime, it bears noting, is roughly 10 minutes shorter than in the college game. In winning 38 of their last 39 games, Carroll & Co. have made excellent use of those extra minutes.

The Trojans have trailed at halftime five times in the last two seasons and won three other games in which they led by a touchdown or less at intermission. Of those eight games, all but one were against conference rivals. The team that ends the streak (box, page 45) might just:

•PLAY IN THE PAC-10

"I've been amazed," says Cal's Delgado, "at how some schools with great athletes don't do very well against them. Arkansas should have been able to match up with those guys." In a 70-17 win over the Razorbacks on Sept. 17, USC scored its first four touchdowns in a total of 92 seconds. Likewise, Delgado adds, "Oklahoma seemed bewildered" in getting blown out 55-19 by the Trojans in last season's national title game. "I think it has something to do with the sophistication of the ball played in our league," he says. "These schools from other conferences, where schemes are more vanilla, where they rely more on athleticism and physical play, get manipulated by 'SC's schemes."

Delgado and the Bears get another shot at the Trojans on Nov. 12 in Berkeley. Here are some lessons they can take from a couple of USC's other close calls:

•DON'T BELIEVE THE HYPE

"We told our players, 'They're a wonderful team, but they're [just] guys,'" says Buddy Teevens, who coached Stanford to a 31-28 loss to 'SC last season and is now the head man at Dartmouth. "They're 18 to 22, they lift weights, they work out, just like you. They're good athletes, but they're only human--with the exception of Reggie Bush."

•MAKE MOMENTUM-CHANGING PLAYS ON SPECIAL TEAMS

The team that ends the streak is likely to do some damage with a big return. After taking a 28-14 lead over struggling Arizona on Saturday, the Trojans promptly gave up a 76-yard kickoff return by Syndric Steptoe, which set up the Wildcats' third touchdown. A week earlier Arizona State's Terry Richardson pumped up the volume at Sun Devil Stadium with his first-quarter, 84-yard punt return for a touchdown. Stanford scored on a fake field goal in its heartbreaker to the Trojans last year. If you've got a few plays like those gathering dust in your playbook, try 'em. Who else are you saving them for?

But make sure those plays change the momentum in your favor. If Cal doesn't botch a punt snap and fumble a punt return, handing USC 10 points in last year's game, the streak ends at 13 and this story is headlined, can anybody beat texas?

•ATTACK THEIR SECONDARY

The good news for USC's defensive backs last weekend was that Ryan Ting picked off a pass deep in Trojans territory in the fourth quarter. The good news for USC opponents was that Ting was on the field at crunch time. Ting, a reserve safety, is in the mix because defections and injuries have taken a severe toll on the secondary, which is down to three scholarship cornerbacks. As UCLA wideout Junior Taylor said after last season's 29-24 loss to USC, "No offense to them, but that secondary wasn't the greatest."

That assessment still applies. Despite throwing five interceptions, Arizona State's Sam Keller frequently lit up Southern Cal, completing pass after pass in front of corners Justin Wyatt and John Walker, a fifth-year senior making his second start. Even if the Trojans did win their share of battles as the game wore on--Walker had a pair of picks--this bunch remains suspect. With a chance to bury Arizona early in the second half, USC allowed the Wildcats their longest scoring play of the season, a 42-yard touchdown over Wyatt. The Trojans comfort themselves with the knowledge that with his defensive acumen, Carroll will be able to scheme around the pass-defense issues.

Even if Carroll can't, even if some quarterback--whether it's Notre Dame's Brady Quinn this Saturday or Fresno State's Paul Pinegar on Nov. 19 or Vince Young of Texas in the Rose Bowl--passes his team to a three-touchdown lead over these guys, that team must:

•SURVIVE THE ONSLAUGHT

"It doesn't matter how far ahead you are--you know they're coming back," says Rodgers. In USC's last defeat, Cal coughed up a 14-point lead. "You've gotta take their best shot," says Rodgers, "and survive it."

This becomes more difficult as the season goes on. Every time the Trojans pull off one of these comebacks, such as the rally against Arizona State, they come out of it stronger, more united, more persuaded that they are unbeatable.

Which, of course, they are not. Picture this: With his players chanting "Do the Trojan!" after yet another win, Carroll obliges them by performing his signature gyrating victory dance in the dressing room. Losing his footing on the slick floor--a custodian has been paid to apply excessive amounts of Mop & Glo--the coach takes a hard fall. Confined to a golf cart the following week, unable to follow his usual manic routine of bounding around the practice field like a Skittles-wired fourth-grader, the 54-year-old becomes morose and withdrawn. His lassitude is contagious: The team comes out flat, the sun sets on the streak.

Or, failing that:

Wait until next season.

SI.COM

Check out Stewart Mandel's power rankings and SI's midseason All-America team at SI.com/collegefootball.

PHOTOPhotograph by Peter Read Miller  STOP THIS
Leinart quarterbacks an offense that leads the nation in total offense (640.4 yards per game) and rushing offense (291.2) and is second in scoring (51.6 points).
TWO PHOTOSBOB ROSATO (YOUNG, CROYLE)PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (VICK)PHOTOAL TIELEMANS (QUINN)PHOTOLISA BLUMENFELD/GETTY IMAGES (AYOOB)PHOTOPETER READ MILLER  CHANGEUP ARTISTS
Carroll and his staff are masters at making halftime adjustments.