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Ground Rule
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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HE HAS long gone against the grain in this staid, often self-important- profession, so it wasn't overly surprising to see Pete Carroll playing with an action figure in the visitors' locker room at Nebraska last Saturday.

The USC coach would argue that he wasn't playing with the five-inch facsimile of 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, that bane of international terrorists, in the hit series 24.

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

Six minutes into the second quarter at Lincoln's Memorial Stadium, the question was not whether the Trojans were the top-ranked team in the nation; it was whether they were the best team on the field. They trailed by 10--7 to a Nebraska team that was taking 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 linemen around him.

"He told us, 'You know what? We're not gonna throw any passes,'" recalls right tackle Drew 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 remembers putting it.

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

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

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

When the game ended—the final was 49--31, the Cornhuskers having punched in two late scores against USC's second-string D—the Trojans had outrushed the home team 313 yards to 31. USC unveiled what Carroll described as "some cool misdirection plays" in which wide receivers motioned in one direction and the ballcarrier took the handoff going in the other. That deception "created some hesitation in their linebacker play," according to offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, "that allowed our linemen to get up on 'em and drive '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 center Kris 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 not too often [that Carroll] puts the game on our shoulders. It gets you fired up."

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