Nation's best linebacker to test TCU's option offense
Posted: Wednesday December 30, 1998 09:49 PM
EL PASO, Texas (AP) -- There are reasons why Texas Christian is one of the bowl season's biggest underdogs, and the most imposing is Southern Cal All-American linebacker Chris Claiborne.
The 6-foot-3, 250-pound junior is this year's Butkus Award winner and the defensive player of the year in the Pac-10. And he's a most intimidating obstacle to TCU's bid to win its first bowl game in 41 years when the Horned Frogs take on the Trojans Thursday in the Sun Bowl.
"I don't think there's much you can do with him," TCU coach Dennis Franchione said Wednesday. "The guy plays in the middle and goes sideline to sideline. He's a great athlete, he has great speed, great range and a bad attitude when he gets to the football. He makes plays and he turns games around."
He did that this season in the Trojans' wins against Oregon State, Washington State, Washington and Notre Dame. Four of his team-leading six interceptions came in those four wins and he returned two of them for touchdowns.
"We may need to avoid throwing the ball in his direction," said Franchione, who then quickly added, "but he always seems to end up where the ball is."
Southern Cal (8-4) is a 16-point favorite to extend the Horned Frogs (6-5) bowl drought. TCU hasn't won a bowl game since it beat Syracuse 28-27 in the 1957 Cotton Bowl and has lost four straight.
Snapping the streak won't be easy against a school with as much bowl-tradition as the Trojans.
USC has won 25 bowl games -- three fewer than national leader Alabama -- with 20 of those victories coming in the Rose Bowl. The fact the Trojans are in El Paso this week instead of Pasadena doesn't diminish their ambition to get another post-season win, first-year coach Paul Hackett said.
"I don't think there's any issue about motivation," Hackett said. "The history of USC in bowls is pretty dramatic. We're the number two winningest bowl team in the NCAA behind Alabama and we have a chance to catch one up on them."
Hackett, who took over the USC program two days after Franchione got the job at TCU last December, said the Trojans' motivation also is spurred by the fact they've been shut out of the bowls the last two seasons.
"We were a .500 team and there was huge disappointment," he said. "The concern there was let's get this thing restarted."
A new start is what Franchione delivered in Fort Worth. He inherited a program that finished 1-10 in 1997, and bowl fever surfaced when the Horned Frogs won four of the first five games.
How far TCU has come this season surprised even Franchione, who has built a reputation on being able to rebuild programs.
"It would have been difficult to say that being here [El Paso] was something that was first and foremost on our minds clear back then," Franchione said.
TCU's bid for an upset will rest heavily on its ability to beat the Trojans' defense with the option. The Horned Frogs, led by senior tailback Basil Mitchell's 1,111 yards, averaged nearly 240 yards a game on the ground.
Hackett has watched plenty of film on TCU's offense, but says he isn't sure how the Trojans will react.
"They seem to run it a thousand different ways, and our problem is we don't see the option very much," Hackett said.
And since both teams are loaded with underclassmen, said Hackett, the Trojans' role as prohibitive favorites may be overrated,
"Don't be enamored by the point spread," he said. "Those people [oddsmakers] don't zero in and know what's going on. We're both young teams with first-year coaches."Kickoff is set for 12:00 p.m. MST.
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