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Ground Rule
AUSTIN MURPHY
September 24, 2007
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
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September 24, 2007

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

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Besides, adjectives like physical and smashmouth can be euphemisms for primitive and unimaginative. Until Steve Spurrier took over at Florida in 1990, the SEC was a notorious coldbed of offensive innovation. While the league's passing attacks are far more sophisticated now than they were even a few years ago, one Pac-10 coach 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 "basic stuff. 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 those teams."

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

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

Perhaps most noteworthy in the victory was that a feature runner appeared to have emerged for the tailback-rich Trojans. Sophomore Stafon Johnson, who starred at L.A.'s Dorsey High, plunged down the depth chart in '06. "I was killin' it in the scrimmages," he told SI last week, "but when it came to practices, I was 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 good player. We just weren't getting it out of him." The recollection brings a tinge of exasperation to Carroll's voice.

How far down the depth chart was Johnson? "I was basically at the bottom of the Grand Canyon," he says. "The light went on for me over the winter. My grandfather passed"—Larry (Big Dad) Mallory died of a heart attack at age 66—"and it felt like it was time to grow up and be a man."

Johnson tore it up in the spring but still went into fall camp seventh on the depth chart. His attitude adjustment combined with attrition at tailback—Emmanuel Moody transferred to Florida; C.J. Gable, Chauncey Washington, Allen Bradford and Joe McKnight all incurred nagging injuries—ensured that Johnson would get plenty of work in Nebraska. He finished with 144 yards on 11 carries for a preposterous 13.1-yard average that nevertheless seemed slightly anemic beside the per-carry numbers of Gable (four carries, 69 yards, 17.2 yards per rush) and fullback Stanley Havili (two, 52, 26.0).

If Trojans offensive line coach Pat Ruel seemed even more gregarious than usual in victory, he had his reasons. "Oh, yeah," Ruel said with a smile. "I got my ass kicked in here quite often." It turned out he'd spent nine years as an assistant at Kansas. "I've been in here four or five times when Tom Osborne was the [ Cornhuskers'] coach, and wow, the game couldn't get over fast enough."

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

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