As USC prepared this week to play Penn State tonight at the Coliseum, Trojan fans probably asked themselves a question they don't often ponder:
Can USC compete against one of the country's best teams?
The Trojans provided few answers in their opener 12 days ago, snoozing through the second half of a 24-10 loss to Memphis State.
Coach Larry Smith offered this much: "I believe that . . . you're going to see a Trojan football team that will come out wanting--and ready--to play. From that point on, I make no promises."
Smith said his players had no respect for Memphis State before the opener and weren't prepared for the game. Their lethargic performance against the lightly regarded Tigers showed it.
That won't be a problem against Penn State, which has its sights set on a national championship and is out to avenge a 19-14 loss to the Trojans last season.
The fifth-ranked Nittany Lions have opened the season impressively, beating Georgia Tech, 34-22, in the Kickoff Classic at East Rutherford, N.J., and Cincinnati, 81-0, last Saturday at University Park, Pa.
A veteran team--all but two of its starters are seniors or juniors--Penn State has won its last 11 regular-season games. A 24-17 loss to Florida State in the Blockbuster Bowl last December is the only blemish on the Nittany Lions' record since they walked out of the Coliseum last September.
Senior quarterback Tony Sacca, a starter since he was a freshman, is the leader of an offense that amassed a school-record 706 yards against Cincinnati, 484 rushing.
Frequently critical of Coach Joe Paterno's often conservative play-calling in the past, the 6-foot-5 Sacca has completed 24 of 39 passes for 396 yards and seven touchdowns, with no interceptions. He seems content.
And the defense, led by a group of linebackers that has been called the best ever assembled at "Linebacker U.," has given up only three points in the first three quarters of the Nittany Lions' first two games.
Georgia Tech was trailing, 34-3, before scoring three fourth-quarter touchdowns.
"Penn State is a much better team than the team we played a year ago," Smith said. "Sacca has really settled in and is making a lot better decisions. He is executing in the passing game so much better. He's playing with a lot more confidence."
Smith said Penn State's defense was comparable to Washington's, which is regarded as one of the best in the country.
"They're very, very athletic and quick," Smith said.
In sum, he said, the Nittany Lions are among the top two or three teams in the country.
Smith's counterpart tried to minimize the Nittany Lions' dominance in their first two games. Looks can be deceiving, Paterno implied, sounding as if he was worried that his players might underestimate the Trojans.
"We've had everything go our way," Paterno said. "We may be deluding ourselves as to what it will take to beat Southern Cal. I just hope we're realistic enough to understand what's happened to us in our first two games--that we're not that good, that the other people have really helped us."
Paterno said that last year's game against USC, which Penn State might have won if linebacker Keith Goganious hadn't dropped a fourth-quarter interception, represented a turning point for the Nittany Lions.
"I think when we came off the field in Los Angeles, we felt we could have beaten them," Paterno said. "We didn't, but I think our kids said, 'Hey, you know, we're pretty good. We'd better start playing like it.' "
With the exception of that loss to Florida State last December, they have been rolling ever since.
Whether they can roll through the Trojans is not yet known, but Paterno said he would feel better if USC had won its opener.
"I think Southern Cal will be much, much more difficult for us to handle because of the Memphis State game," Paterno said. "I don't think there's any question about that. It makes it even more challenging for us."
But no easier for USC, which last started 0-2 in 1960.
"When you don't win, there's not a whole hell of a lot you can build on," Smith said. "And then, in your next game, you play one of the top two teams on your schedule--it's the frying pan into the fire."
The last time USC was not ranked in the Associated Press poll, as is the case this week, it upset UCLA to gain a berth in the 1988 Rose Bowl. . . . USC twice has won national championships after losing its opener. . . . Tailback Mazio Royster is not expected to play for USC and might not even be in uniform, Coach Larry Smith said Friday. Sophomore Deon Strother will replace Royster, Smith said.