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He’s a Frustrated Trojan : Matt Johnson Says Team and Quarterback Are Better Than Record Shows

Times Staff Writer

Matt Johnson, USC’s senior cornerback, is consumed with frustration.

He is frustrated because his good friend and roommate, quarterback Sean Salisbury, gets neither the recognition nor the prominent role in USC’s offense that Johnson figures he deserves.

He is frustrated by USC’s 3-3 record and last Saturday’s embarrassing 37-3 loss to Notre Dame at South Bend, Ind.

Johnson doesn’t understand why USC isn’t a big-play, catch-up team. He also said that some of the players were second-guessing Coach Ted Tollner’s play calling in the Notre Dame game.

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Johnson is an intense athlete. He shaved his head last year, leaving the letters S and C prominently displayed in his scalp.

“I knew earlier that we would have a good team,” Johnson said. “Salisbury was coming back, and we had a lot of good things going for us. The defense was the question mark, but it has played all right.

“But the offense hasn’t played the way I thought it would. It’s frustrating to see that much talent on offense and not have the type of offense we should have.”

Johnson and Salisbury have been close friends since they were prep stars, Johnson at Chula Vista, Salisbury at Escondido.

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Before they enrolled at USC, they talked about their dreams of winning national championships and playing in the Rose Bowl.

So Johnson’s evaluation of Salisbury could be regarded as biased, but Johnson was adamant when he said:

“We’re getting ready to play Mark Rypien and Washington State, and he’s one of the best quarterbacks around. All the coaches say how good and consistent he is. But I face someone in practice who is better than Rypien, or John Paye of Stanford.

“Given an environment of BYU or Stanford, Sean would be awesome. He’s a natural drop-back passer. I say he is the best quarterback in the Pac-10.”

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Others might not agree, considering Salisbury’s injury-marred career. Statistically, though, he is the school’s all-time passing leader in completions and yardage.

USC’s offensive style is, and traditionally has been, to pound opponents with the running game, using passes mostly to diversify the attack.

“But why is our system like that?” Johnson asked. “Why not gear it to the talent--and I think the talent this year lies with Salisbury. I’m not sure we’re getting the most out of him. We’ve got great backs and a line to run the ball, but after two runs, it can be third and 13 and I’m thinking they’re going to have to throw the ball.

“What kind of patterns do we have? We have out and in patterns and a thing to Joe Cormier out in the flat. Now that’s pretty predictable.”

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Johnson said that USC should be softening defenses with Salisbury’s first-down passes, which would make the running game even more productive.

“What we have is a nickel-and-dime type passing offense,” Johnson said. “It’s not a big-play passing offense by any means. We’re an efficient passing offense. Run, run, run and get the pass for a first down. We’re not trying to trick anybody.”

Tollner said: “Our philosophy is to dominate the line with the run, and if Matt feels we should throw more, that is his opinion. We feel we are doing what gives us our best chance to win, while mixing in the pass.”

USC has not been identified as a catch-up team in recent years, and Johnson says that he is bothered by that aspect.

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“Why aren’t we?” he asked. “USC football teams have always found a way. When we were down by two or three touchdowns, people would say we would be all right. “If you are to classify us as a great football team (no one is doing that this year), then we should have the ability to come from behind and not go into the tank as we have been doing.”

Johnson said that, perhaps, his teammates aren’t confident that the Trojans can overcome a two- or three-touchdown deficit with an offensive style that emphasizes running.

“If you start second-guessing Coach Tollner’s play-calling, believe me, it snowballs and the whole thing is over. That’s what happened at Notre Dame.

“You have to be consistent and believe that the play is going to work. You can’t get into second-guessing. I’ve been guilty of that, too, but I try not to be that way.”

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Johnson recalled a game against Arizona in 1982 that USC won, 48-41. He said that John Robinson, USC’s coach then, came into the locker room at halftime and said, “We love this.”

“To me, that’s USC,” Johnson said. “I don’t care if the offense stinks, the defense has to cover for it and the same for the offense covering for the defense. We’ve lost a little bit of that.”

Johnson said that USC alumni and supporters of the school’s football program have a right to be concerned when the team is struggling.

“I hate getting beat by Arizona State when we can’t get a point on the board (24-0), and Notre Dame kicks our butt,” he said. “That’s the ultimate embarrassment. It has been said that we shouldn’t care what other people say, but I do.

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“A lot of people have been putting things in to keep the school the way it is and they have a legitimate right to be upset. They’re donating money. This isn’t like a state school. That is what separates USC. There are a lot of people that really care--not just the armchair guys who sit there and think they know it all.

“Those people should be able to speak up and say that I’m not doing my job. There is a lot at stake when you’re playing for USC.”

Johnson still believes that the team can rebound in the remaining five conference games, if everyone takes care of his assignment and doesn’t worry about someone else.

Johnson has played five seasons at USC. An NCAA ruling allowed him to retain his freshman eligibility for 1982 because he hadn’t played a required number of minutes in 1981.

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He has been a part-time starter at safety, captain of the special teams and, as of this year, a full-time starter at cornerback.

Johnson has contributed 24 unassisted tackles. He also has deflected eight passes and intercepted two others, one of which led to a touchdown in the season-opening 20-10 victory over Illinois.

He has been playing with his left hand heavily wrapped to protect an injured ligament in his thumb.

Johnson said that he won’t allow his teammates to get depressed in the wake of the loss to Notre Dame. “I’m always vocal,” he said. “If someone is down in the dumps in practice, I’ll kick his butt and not let him get that way. There are too many good things that can happen to us.”

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