USC Learns Hard Way: Lambs Really Are Tigers : Football: Memphis State, considered a patsy, scores 21 points in the second half and shuts down Trojans, 24-10.
Like so many USC games of yore, the Trojans’ opener at the Coliseum on Monday was won by the team that overcame a second-half deficit, put together a back-breaking fourth-quarter touchdown drive and wore down its opponent.
This time, though, the winning team was not USC.
Memphis State, guaranteed a reported $300,000 to play and considered a sacrificial lamb, instead stunned the Trojans, scoring three unanswered touchdowns in the second half of a 24-10 victory before 55,637.
Even the Tigers, 17-point underdogs, seemed surprised. Emerging from their dressing room afterward, before showering, they gathered on the field for a group photo, with the scoreboard in the background.
“We hung in there pretty good in the first half,” said USC’s sophomore quarterback, Reggie Perry, whose debut was ruined by the Tigers, “but we didn’t come out to play in the second half.”
Hung in there?
This wasn’t Notre Dame the Trojans were playing. In its opener last season, Memphis State was tied by Arkansas State.
Still, the Trojans insisted they weren’t overconfident.
So, what happened?
“In the second half, we played not very good football,” USC Coach Larry Smith said. “Offensively, we made penalties and put ourselves in the hole. Defensively, we just plain didn’t stop them. And our kicking teams made some very drastic mistakes that really hurt us.”
Utilizing a conservative game plan that featured junior tailback Mazio Royster, who ran for 97 yards in 20 carries before being lifted at halftime because of a slightly sprained right knee, USC held a 10-3 lead before the game started to slip away in the third quarter.
The Tigers pulled even on a 40-yard touchdown pass play from quarterback Keith Benton to wide receiver Russell Jones, who beat cornerback Calvin Holmes and caught Benton’s pass in the end zone without breaking stride.
Then came the first of a series of critical errors by the Trojans, who lost for the third time in three Labor Day openers under Smith, whose nonconference record in more than four seasons at USC is 9-10.
After Curtis Conway returned the ensuing kickoff 100 yards for what would have been the Trojans’ first kickoff return for a touchdown since 1974, the play was nullified by a holding penalty.
USC still seemed to be in pretty good shape, even after a short drive stalled at Memphis State’s 41-yard line.
Ron Dale’s punt was downed at the Tigers’ three-yard line.
Then Memphis State drove 97 yards in 18 plays to open a 17-10 lead on a four-yard pass play from Benton to fullback Jeff Bynum, who was alone in the left corner of the end zone.
“Coach told us to pound the ball, pound the ball and eventually the ice would break,” Benton said. “And it finally did.”
Said Smith of the drive: “That was a big surprise.”
Strong safety Stephon Pace couldn’t believe it, either.
“They did what they wanted to,” Pace said of the smaller Tigers. “They ran the ball well, they threw the ball and we just didn’t run to the ball and make the plays when we had to. We just didn’t tackle well.”
The kickoff that followed all but finished the Trojans.
It was short, landing at about the 15-yard line, and bounced back toward kicker Jeff Buffaloe and away from return man Johnnie Morton.
Slow to react, the Trojans watched in frustration as Memphis State’s Rod Brown raced down the field and pounced on the free ball, giving the Tigers a first down at USC’s 18-yard line with 10:56 remaining.
Three plays later, all of them runs by backup tailback Xavier Crawford, Memphis State was in the end zone again.
Crawford’s two-yard run put the Tigers ahead, 24-10.
“The two keys of the second half were them driving 97 yards and then, of course, the kickoff, when they got the ball right back and put another (seven points) on the scoreboard,” Smith said. “That forced us to play catch-up football. That kickoff had to be the critical play of the whole game. It really threw us into a completely different play-calling sync.
“Mentally, it really crushes you.”
With the inexperienced Perry in control, the Trojan offense wasn’t up to the challenge of overcoming a two-touchdown deficit.
USC, limited to three first downs in the first 20 minutes of the second half, reached the Tigers’ 16-yard line with about 4:45 left, but Perry was sacked on fourth down and Memphis State regained possession.
In his first start, Perry completed 13 of 23 passes for 155 yards and carried 15 times for 60 yards and USC’s only touchdown, but he was unable to move the Trojans during the most critical part of the game.
Later, he seemed mixed up, twice describing Memphis State, which has had one winning season since 1983, as a “great” team.
But compared to USC, the Tigers were great.
“We’ve got to get back on the practice field and try to mold a football team that knows how to score on offense, knows how to stop an opponent on defense and has a kicking game that makes big plays,” Smith said.
At least the Trojans have almost two weeks to prepare for Penn State, which will visit the Coliseum for a nationally televised game Sept. 14.
“I’d say we’re going to need the two weeks to get ready, or we’re going to get wiped out big-time,” Smith said.
USC tailback Mazio Royster was injured on his sixth carry when he hit his right knee on a defender’s helmet. He carried 14 more times and said he wanted to play in the second half. “They thought it would be best for me to stay out, and I respected their decision,” Royster said. “It’s a long season.” . . . Quarterback Reggie Perry’s 20-yard touchdown run in the second quarter was the longest of USC’s 51 rushing attempts. . . . USC hadn’t been so badly outscored in the second half since 1985, when Alabama broke a 3-3 halftime tie by scoring three second-half touchdowns in its 24-3 Aloha Bowl victory.
* INSIDE: Memphis State began preparing for USC at the end of last season. Mal Florence’s story. C10