ANOTHER EARLY-SEASON Armageddon, another comprehensive butt-kicking by the USC Trojans. If these guys could avoid nodding off against the Stanfords and the Oregon States of the world, they'd be dangerous. ¶ Another night on center stage, another VW Beetle--sized egg laid by the Ohio State Bridesmaids—beg your pardon, Buckeyes—a deep, talented, senior-laden squad that, for whatever reason, goes all to pieces when the lights shine brightest. ¶ Don't count out the Buckeyes, warned Trojans quarterback Mark Sanchez, after throwing four touchdown passes in his fifth college start, a 35--3 cakewalk that validated USC's No. 1 ranking and salvaged an otherwise grim Saturday for the Pac-10 (page 38). "They're tough. They're going to probably win out and be back in the Rose Bowl."
And that would be just peachy, really, for that broad segment of the American public unfamiliar with the lyrics to Carmen Ohio. Because it would mean the Buckeyes had not been invited back to the BCS championship, from which they drained all the suspense before halftime in each of the last two seasons (losing 41--14 to Florida and then 38--24 to LSU). Even before Ohio State's ill-timed implosion in the L.A. Coliseum, a broad consensus had formed: It's someone else's turn to get waxed by the SEC champion.
Sanchez is a 6'3", 225-pound redshirt junior who has a stronger arm, better scrambling ability and larger personality than his predecessor, John David Booty. Against the Buckeyes' defense, which returned nine starters from the nation's top unit in 2007, he was cool and in command, completing 17 of 28 passes for 172 yards. Sanchez forced one throw—cornerback Chimdi Chekwa made an acrobatic end-zone interception—and "left some yards out on the field," he lamented, on other plays.
While he went out of his way to praise Booty, Trojans coach Pete Carroll, in his office after the game, could not help effusing, "It's like, we're alive again on offense."
Carroll's defense, meanwhile, led by senior linebackers Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing, is as full of piss and vinegar as ever. With his customary flair for the dramatic, Maualuga stepped in front of a Todd Boeckman pass in the second quarter, then turned on what he later called "my 4.2 speed" and tightroped 48 yards down the sideline for USC's third touchdown. "Four-two?" said defensive end--linebacker Clay Matthews, who chipped in six tackles, one sack and a forced fumble. "Maybe five-two." As for Cushing—Batman to Maualuga's Superman, according to Trojans linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr.—he had a game-high-tying 10 tackles and applied the heat on Boeckman that led to Maualuga's pick.
USC's resident Hulks—an unproven offensive line with four new starters, including a trio of sophomores—gave another strong indication that they're going to be, if not Incredible, at least very good in '08. Following the lead of the sole returnee, senior left guard Jeff Byers, they opened the lanes that allowed electrifying sophomore Joe McKnight to rush for 105 yards on just 12 carries before he retired to the bench in the second half with a migraine.
Before the Aug. 30 season opener against Virginia, line coach Pat Ruel was not sure that his charges were ready, so he quizzed them on precisely how to block various defensive alignments. He did this in meetings using flashcards, despite Carroll's warning that Ruel "be careful of making those guys overthink. We want them to play fast."
Soothed by their performance in the 52--7 rout of the Cavaliers, Ruel put the flashcards away. On the morning of the Ohio State game, however, he did subject his linemen to a drill in which chairs were aligned in a defensive formation and each player had to tell him which chair he would block. When the drill got a bit old, freshman guard Khaled Holmes piped up, "Remember, Coach Carroll doesn't want us to think too much!"
After brusquely reminding Holmes that unsolicited input from freshmen is seldom, if ever, welcome, Ruel nonetheless cut the exercise short. "All right," he told his guys, "I'm going to trust that you know what you're doing." Spend some time around this team, and that word keeps coming up: trust.
THE DISTURBANCE emanated from the second floor of L.A.'s downtown Marriott last Saturday. Guests in the lobby lounge were startled by the sight—and sound—of 60 or so USC players one floor above them. Before going into a meeting in one of the ballrooms, they let out a kind of primal moan—Oooooohhhhh—followed by three sharp grunts: Oof! Oof! Oof!