For USC’s football team, all the optimism generated by a season-opening victory evaporated in the space of nine minutes Saturday in a place called Happy Valley.
Penn State 38, USC 14.
Before 96,463, Penn State knocked out the Trojans early, running off to a 21-0 first-quarter lead and making it 35-0 at the half before Joe Paterno decided to take a look at his depth chart.
It was an overwhelming defeat--a word USC Coach John Robinson would use afterward--on an afternoon when the Trojans at no time mounted any form of offensive threat.
Here’s how bad it was for USC:
--The game began at 3:33 p.m. By 3:42 p.m., it was 14-0, Penn State.
--Rob Johnson’s Heisman Trophy hopes all but vanished. He completed 18 of 30 passes for 221 yards and no touchdowns. He was sacked six times.
--USC, which seemed to have revitalized its running game in a 24-17 victory over Washington last week, netted a mere 60 yards.
--The Trojan defense, which a year ago couldn’t stop the run against tough opponents, apparently can’t do so this season, either. Penn State, playing the ground-based kind of football Robinson wants to play, gained 286 yards rushing.
“We were overwhelmed right off the bat,” Robinson said of two early touchdown strikes by the Nittany Lions.
“I suppose you could say they can’t do that against everyone, but they’ve done it two weeks in a row now.”
He referred to Penn State’s 56-3 victory at Minnesota last week, also sparked by early touchdowns.
The Trojans were hobbled offensively. Wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson didn’t play (sore quadriceps) and Ed Hervey (shoulder, knee) didn’t suit up.
Penn State knocked out USC early with two-down football. It didn’t need a third-down play until its third scoring drive.
Ki-Jana Carter, said to be the fastest runner ever to play for Penn State, looked like it on the game’s first touchdown. From USC’s 32, he simply blew past the right side of the Trojan defense and scored untouched.
On USC’s first possession, Johnson’s first pass was knocked down by defensive end Jeff Perry, Shawn Walters gained nine and then USC center Jeremy Hogue and Johnson muffed the third-down snap and Penn State recovered at the Trojan 44.
Kerry Collins, a 6-foot-5, 235-pound senior quarterback who almost signed a baseball contract out of high school, went to work on USC’s left cornerback, John Herpin and beat him with a bad pass.
Collins threw short to wide receiver Freddie Scott on Penn State’s sideline, but Scott came back to the ball and outjumped Herpin to grab it and dance into the end zone.
With 12:55 left in the first quarter, Penn State was ahead, 14-0.
The only other score Paterno’s team needed came with 7:09 left in the quarter, when Collins took the Nittany Lions 57 yards in nine plays, sending Jon Witman over from the seven.
And that was it. Penn State had rushed for 94 first-quarter yards compared to USC’s 19. Carter, who finished with 119 yards, had 67 in the first quarter. Johnson was two for five and 21 yards.
“The fumbled snap gave them good field position and they took advantage of it immediately,” Robinson said.
“It was devastating, how quickly they were on top of us. Penn State is as good a team execution-wise at this stage of a season as any team I’ve seen.
“We’re not as bad as we looked. Two of our best players didn’t play and we played about 20 very young players. We need to get healed up during (this week’s) bye.”
Describing the fumbled first-quarter snap, Johnson said: “I don’t want to point any fingers. It was part my fault, part (Hogue’s).
“We fell behind last year against teams and came back, and I wasn’t really worried until they got it into the thirties. We weren’t clicking. Robinson told us at the half to play like it was zero-zero, but we just couldn’t get it going.”
As it turned out, USC’s best play was a defensive gem by cornerback Quincy Harrison. He picked off a Collins pass intended for Chris Campbell and returned it 68 yards for a third-quarter touchdown. But by then it already was 35-0.
Trojan linebacker Jeff Kopp, who was in on a game-high 13 tackles, said Penn State was more mentally prepared.
“They were ready to play and we weren’t,” he said. “On all their traps, we got blown out. The defense was out there a long time, but that was our fault. They were very good at holding their blocks--we couldn’t free up on them.”
“We worked all summer to be more physical . . . and we got our butts kicked, and that’s discouraging to me.”
USC lost one player Saturday. Substitute center Jesse Gomez tore ligaments in his right knee and will require surgery that will end his season.
On the victors’ side, not even Paterno could sandbag it this time.
“I think we’re a pretty good football team,” he said. “We couldn’t do much better.
“Kerry Collins played a super first half, and our defense played a very strong, alert game.”
* GATOR BAIT: No. 2 Florida makes a case for regaining the top spot in national polls, scoring at least 70 points for the second week in a row in a 73-7 rout of Kentucky. C6
* AN OASIS: No. 5 Miami, winless in three bowl games played at Sun Devil Stadium, has no trouble this time with a 47-10 victory over Arizona State. C8
* CARDINAL ERROR: A missed field-goal attempt with 23 seconds remaining leaves No. 24 Stanford with a 41-41 tie against Northwestern. C9