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Ground Rule

Sept. 24, 2007
Sept. 24, 2007

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Sept. 24, 2007

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MIKE COOLBAUGH

Ground Rule

With reenergized tailback Stafon Johnson showing the way, No. 1 USC ran all over Nebraska, boosting the Pac-10's claim that it's as tough as the SEC

HE HAS long goneagainst the grain in this staid, often self-important- profession, so it wasn'toverly surprising to see Pete Carroll playing with an action figure in thevisitors' locker room at Nebraska last Saturday.

The USC coach would argue that he wasn't playing with the five-inch facsimileof Jack Bauer so much as he was holding it at arm's length, examining it,admiring it. The toy was a gift from Kiefer Sutherland, who plays Bauer, thatbane of international terrorists, in the hit series 24.

Saturday may have been Carroll's birthday—he turned 56—but it was the coach whobestowed a more profound gift on his offensive linemen: He gave them the chanceto take over the game.

This is an article from the Sept. 24, 2007 issue

Six minutes intothe second quarter at Lincoln's Memorial Stadium, the question was not whetherthe Trojans were the top-ranked team in the nation; it was whether they werethe best team on the field. They trailed by 10--7 to a Nebraska team that wastaking it to them physically. Clubbed in the larynx on a kickoff return,Vincent Joseph had left the field on a gurney. (He turned out to be fine.)During the extended stoppage of play Carroll gathered his offensive linemenaround him.

"He told us,'You know what? We're not gonna throw any passes,'" recalls right tackleDrew Radovich. "We're gonna run the ball until we score."

"Let's knock'em off the football and go have some fun," is how Carroll remembersputting it.

Five running playsand 45 yards later, USC had a 14--10 lead. On their next possession the Trojanscovered 73 yards in nine plays—60 of those yards coming on the ground, throughthe sort of vast, yawning holes that Cornhuskers backs by the name of MikeRozier and Ahman Green once dashed on this field. Southern California scoredtouchdowns on five straight possessions to take a 42--10 lead, serving notice,in the process, that:

1. Nebraska, whichunder fourth-year coach Bill Callahan has taken baby steps in the direction ofits former glory, still has a long way to go.

2. USC'sineptitude in the running game last season was an anomaly. The Trojans werelimited by a raft of injuries at fullback and, it would appear, by theseasonlong presence in Carroll's doghouse of the team's best back.

When the gameended—the final was 49--31, the Cornhuskers having punched in two late scoresagainst USC's second-string D—the Trojans had outrushed the home team 313 yardsto 31. USC unveiled what Carroll described as "some cool misdirectionplays" in which wide receivers motioned in one direction and theballcarrier took the handoff going in the other. That deception "createdsome hesitation in their linebacker play," according to offensivecoordinator Steve Sarkisian, "that allowed our linemen to get up on 'em anddrive 'em down the field."

The end result:sportswriters scrambling to find synonyms for gaping hole.

Wide gulfs.Yawning breaches. Vast chasms. The Trojans hogs—including true freshman centerKris O'Dowd—created some of each. "I've been around here awhile,"senior left tackle Sam Baker said on the field after the game. "It's nottoo often [that Carroll] puts the game on our shoulders. It gets you firedup."

Why?

"Because youcan't really make a statement pass blocking. You make a statement running theball, pushing guys out of the way."

SPEAKING OFstatements, USC made an emphatic one on behalf of its conference. As the windowcloses (for the most part) on interconference play, it's time for finalarguments in one of this sport's perennial bar-stool debates: Which conferenceis strongest? While that question remained open going into last weekend, aseries of outrageous events in Lexington, Ky., swung the balance in favor ofthe SEC. With a last-minute, 57-yard touchdown pass from Andre Woodson to SteveJohnson, Kentucky knocked off ninth-ranked Louisville 40--34. That victoryspoke to the depth of the SEC, which, come Sunday, had six teams in the AP'sTop 25 poll.

Thecontentiousness of the Whose Conference Is Strongest debate was ratcheted upover the summer by LSU coach Les Miles, whose intemperate remarks to a boosterclub quickly made their way onto the Internet and around the college footballworld. Speaking of the Trojans, Miles said dismissively, "They're going toplay real knock-down-drag-outs with UCLA and Washington, Cal-Berkeley,Stanford—some real juggernauts... I would like that path for us."

As the season gotunder way, it became clear that the Pac-10, long derided as a confederacy offinesse offenses and meringue defenses, was nothing of the sort.

Ask Derek Dooley,now in his first year as coach of Louisiana Tech, a 42--12 loser to Cal onSaturday. The son of former Georgia coach Vince Dooley, Derek grew up on thesideline at Bulldogs games. After walking on at Virginia as a wideout, he spentfive years as an assistant at LSU under Nick Saban.

"When you growup in the South and coach in the SEC," says Dooley, you are steeped in"a culture of physical play, of toughness. You also have a perception ofthe kind of football that's played on the West Coast." It's no surprise,then, that before he began watching tape of Cal last week, Dooley had apreconceived notion of Pac-10 football. How long did it take him to open hismind?

"I watchedthree plays, and I thought, I'm seeing what I grew up with," recallsDooley. "These guys are physical, they force you to defend the run, thenhit you with the long pass—the plays you see on SportsCenter."

The 42 points theBears scored on Dooley's Bulldogs were three fewer than Cal hung on visitingTennessee on the first Saturday of the season. With Miles's remarks as asubplot—and with a plane circling the stadium pregame, pulling a banner thatread, SEC RULES, PAC-10 DROOLS—the Bears outran and outhit the 15th-ranked Volsin a 45-31 victory.

Ifout-of-conference foes want to think that "we play a soft brand offootball," says Bears linebacker Zack Follett, "let 'em think it. TexasA&M thought that, and we outhit them, snap to whistle" in a 45--10domination in the Holiday Bowl last December.

Besides,adjectives like physical and smashmouth can be euphemisms for primitive andunimaginative. Until Steve Spurrier took over at Florida in 1990, the SEC was anotorious coldbed of offensive innovation. While the league's passing attacksare far more sophisticated now than they were even a few years ago, one Pac-10coach still described the SEC last August as "a dead conference that way,the worst offensive conference in history."

During the Bears'preparation for Tennessee, Follett described the Vols' offense as "basicstuff. If you compare them to the offenses that we go against—'SC, Washington,Oregon State—we definitely have a lot more film study to prepare for thoseteams."

It didn't matterhow much time Michigan spent breaking down film of Oregon's spread--optionoffense. The Wolverines were powerless to stop senior quarterback Dennis Dixonfrom eviscerating their defense in a 39--7 win in the Big House on Sept. 8.

On that day thePac-10 was 7--0 against nonconference foes—its first perfect Saturday in nineyears. Going into last weekend, the Pac-10 was 13--3 against nonleaguecompetition. True, it lost a bit of luster with No. 11 UCLA's baffling 44--6loss at Utah and Washington's 33--14, return-to-earth defeat at the hands ofOhio State. The Trojans picked up the Pac-10 by subjecting Nebraska to the sortof punishment the Big Red meted out, once upon a time, on a regular basis.

Perhaps mostnoteworthy in the victory was that a feature runner appeared to have emergedfor the tailback-rich Trojans. Sophomore Stafon Johnson, who starred at L.A.'sDorsey High, plunged down the depth chart in '06. "I was killin' it in thescrimmages," he told SI last week, "but when it came to practices, Iwas doing just enough to make the play go."

He didn't hustle,failed to finish plays, had no fire in his belly. "He got beaten out,"says Carroll. "We tried to make it really clear what we were looking for,and it wasn't making sense to him for some reason. We knew he was a really goodplayer. We just weren't getting it out of him." The recollection brings atinge of exasperation to Carroll's voice.

How far down thedepth chart was Johnson? "I was basically at the bottom of the GrandCanyon," he says. "The light went on for me over the winter. Mygrandfather passed"—Larry (Big Dad) Mallory died of a heart attack at age66—"and it felt like it was time to grow up and be a man."

Johnson tore it upin the spring but still went into fall camp seventh on the depth chart. Hisattitude adjustment combined with attrition at tailback—Emmanuel Moodytransferred to Florida; C.J. Gable, Chauncey Washington, Allen Bradford and JoeMcKnight all incurred nagging injuries—ensured that Johnson would get plenty ofwork in Nebraska. He finished with 144 yards on 11 carries for a preposterous13.1-yard average that nevertheless seemed slightly anemic beside the per-carrynumbers of Gable (four carries, 69 yards, 17.2 yards per rush) and fullbackStanley Havili (two, 52, 26.0).

If Trojansoffensive line coach Pat Ruel seemed even more gregarious than usual invictory, he had his reasons. "Oh, yeah," Ruel said with a smile. "Igot my ass kicked in here quite often." It turned out he'd spent nine yearsas an assistant at Kansas. "I've been in here four or five times when TomOsborne was the [Cornhuskers'] coach, and wow, the game couldn't get over fastenough."

Ruel and the otherUSC assistants had gathered a few hours before the game. Having created somepretext to get Carroll into a meeting room, they popped in a DVD of uncertainprovenance. On the screen appeared Sutherland's Jack Bauer, who interrupted ascene by turning to the camera and saying, "Happy birthday, Pete."

An hour after thegame, Carroll sat on a stool, still holding that action figure, but talking nowabout the return of USC's running game, the gift that keeps on giving.

Kentucky's victory over Louisville spoke to the DEPTHOF THE SEC, which, come Sunday, had six teams in the AP's Top 25 poll.

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BCS Conference Call

The Pac-10 may be closing the gap, but from top tobottom the SEC can't be beat. And, oh, how the Big Ten has fallen

SEC
Kathy Miles recently presented her husband, Les, with a gag gift—a hat thatsays PAC-10 RULES. Not quite. After last weekend—Kentucky knocked off No. 9Louisville, Florida hung 59 points on Tennessee, and LSU blanked MiddleTennessee 44--0 (the same Blue Raiders squad that gave Louisville all it couldhandle)—the SEC rules.

PAC-10
With marquee wins over the SEC (Cal 45, Tennessee 31), Big Ten (Oregon 39,Michigan 7) and Big 12 (USC 49, Nebraska 31), the so-called finesse league isclearly on the rise. Three weekend losses—Washington to Ohio State, UCLA toUtah, Arizona to New Mexico—undermined the claim on Miles's new hat.

BIG EAST
Even with Louisville's defeat by Kentucky, this arriviste conference had threevery strong weeks. West Virginia is a bona fide national title contender.Rutgers' worst enemy is its student section. With an OT win at Auburn, SouthFlorida owns the league's most impressive victory.

BIG 12
With five ranked teams, it's not fair to call it Oklahoma and the 11 Dwarfs,but none of the others are in the Sooners' class. Texas isn't as good as itsNo. 7 ranking. Nebraska was exposed by USC. Texas A&M was lucky to beatFresno State in OT. Missouri scores points in bunches but has serious issues ondefense.

ACC
Virginia Tech was flat-out embarrassed at LSU. Nor did Miami, in losing by 38at Oklahoma, do the ACC any favors. Tom O'Brien kicked off his N.C. Statetenure with a loss to Central Florida. Silver lining: Boston College's 24--10win at Georgia Tech, driven by Matt Ryan's 435 passing yards, was one of theweek's best showings.

BIG TEN
Michigan finally got over its Carr-sickness, plucking the wings off helplessNotre Dame. Bad news: That modest uptick was offset by humiliations galore:Iowa lost at Iowa State, Minnesota at Florida Atlantic, and Northwestern toDuke, snapping at 22 games the nation's longest losing streak.

PHOTOPhotograph by Peter Read MillerRUN FOR IT Johnson averaged 13.1 yards a carry as the Trojans piled up 313 rushing yards.PHOTOMARK ZEROF/US PRESSWIRELATE MAGIC Steve Johnson gave Kentucky and the SEC a marquee win with a last-minute TD against Louisville.PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERROLLING Tim Tebow accounted by four TDs as Florida dismantled Tennessee.