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ALTHOUGH USC and UCLA are in the same city, in recent years they have rarely been in the same boat. The Trojans have been on a luxury liner, cruising to two national championships and six straight top five rankings, while the Bruins have been in more of a rowboat, usually paddling toward mediocre records and second-tier bowls. With the top quarterbacks for both teams on crutches as their openers drew near, USC seemed to be in just as much trouble as UCLA. But the way things have played out seems to offer more proof that the Trojans are charmed and the Bruins cursed.
When Mark Sanchez collapsed in pain and was carted off the field with a dislocated left kneecap on Aug. 9, USC began preparing to open the season at Virginia this Saturday with redshirt freshman Aaron Corp or Arkansas transfer Mitch Mustain, neither of whom has taken a snap as a Trojan. But Sanchez has made a remarkably quick recovery, and by Aug. 20 he was participating in seven-on-seven passing drills. "He looked terrific," said coach Pete Carroll.
Barring an unexpected setback, Sanchez will start against the Cavaliers, which would be a relief for USC. Though he was mostly an understudy to John David Booty the last two years, Sanchez had performed so well in spring practice and preseason camp before his injury that it appeared he might even be an immediate upgrade over Booty.
The Bruins, not surprisingly, aren't as fortunate as their rivals. Pat Cowan won the job in spring practice before he suffered a torn left ACL, ending his season. Early in fall drills the runner-up, Ben Olson, broke his foot for the second time in four months, an injury that will keep him out until October. The Bruins didn't settle on a starter for their Sept. 1 opener against Tennessee until Aug. 18, when coach Rick Neuheisel named Kevin Craft, a junior college transfer.
Craft, who began his career at San Diego State and last year threw for 4,231 yards and 44 touchdowns at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif., won the job because he has a better grasp of the offense than redshirt freshman Chris Forcier—which isn't to say that Craft has it mastered. "Naming a starter two weeks before the opener isn't ideal, but we can make it work," Neuheisel says. "Part of the reason is that we have the best quarterback coach in the country."
The coach he's referring to, Norm Chow, is also the Bruins' new offensive coordinator, having joined UCLA this season after three years with the Tennessee Titans. Chow has adopted a fatalistic approach to the situation. "It's not like we can pick up somebody off the waiver wire," he says. "We'll do the job with what we've got. We have no other choice." The patchwork nature of the Bruins' line, which allowed 36 sacks last year, complicates matters further, but the relentlessly sunny Neuheisel refuses to show any hint of worry. "I guarantee you Norm has had to deal with difficult situations like this before, and he's reached into his bag of tricks to pull it off," he says.
That's true. In 2003 Chow had three untested quarterbacks to choose from, and the situation worked out just fine. Where did that happen? At USC, of course. The unproven passer Chow settled on was Matt Leinart, who merely led the Trojans to a national title. The Bruins are unlikely to play out the same scenario behind Craft, but they would probably settle for less than that. Proving that good fortune isn't exclusive to the Trojans' side of town would be a nice place to start.
ONLY AT SI.COM News and analysis from Stewart Mandel.