Their goal is often referred to as “it.”
Or, “the thing.”
Funny, USC’s Trojans can’t quite seem to get the words national championship out of their mouths. Kind of catches in their throats.
Basically, it’s because their coach wants them to shut up and play football. They’re free to win the national championship, they’re just not supposed to talk about it.
It’s OK for the coach to talk, though.
After all, John Robinson started all this 31 months ago, before he had met a USC player. From Day 1, at the news conference to announce his rehiring, he has talked about national championships.
But in a team meeting two weeks ago, Robinson told his players he wanted to downplay the “We’re No. 1" stuff.
“The first guy I see stick his index finger up in the air, I’m going to bite it off,” he told them.
So what happens? Sports Illustrated comes out with Keyshawn Johnson on the cover--pointing his index finger to the heavens.
At the team’s weightlifting championships, the night before training camp began, Robinson talked about “the thing.”
Addressing his team and praising their off-season gains in strength, he remarked, “When we win the thing, we’re all going to owe [strength coach James Strom] an awful lot.”
“When we win the thing,” not “if.”
As Robinson began his second term as USC’s coach, he said he wanted to challenge for the Rose Bowl his first season, reach the Rose Bowl in Year 2 and challenge for a national title this season.
The Trojans haven’t made the Rose Bowl since the pronouncement, haven’t beaten UCLA or Notre Dame, but expectations are nonetheless soaring--which is just how Robinson, 60, planned it. No more diminished expectations.
“I shot my mouth off a bit when I first came back, but I felt the school’s expectations needed to be higher,” he said. “I wanted SC people thinking and talking about Rose Bowls and national championships again. That’s the kind of positive environment I wanted.”
They are talking, and certainly USC’s being on top of some preseason polls won’t hurt season ticket sales.
Now we’ll see if these guys can play football.
The Trojans open at the Coliseum Sept. 9 against San Jose State. Not much of a test there, nor the following Saturday against Houston. But on Sept. 23, USC plays a tough Pacific 10 opener at Arizona.
Late October will bring the toughest part of the schedule, at Notre Dame and at Washington, on consecutive Saturdays.
USC has 13 starters from an 8-3-1 team that capped the 1994 season with an odd 1-1-1 finish. Trojan faithful prefer to remember the 55-14 demolition of Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl, but there was also the disappointing 17-17 tie with Notre Dame and a major defensive failure in the 31-19 loss to UCLA.
That UCLA loss actually defined this 1995 team more sharply than the Keyshawn Johnson-led Cotton Bowl blowout. Robinson was unhappy with defensive coordinator Don Lindsey’s bend-but-don’t-break defense for a season and a half, and Lindsey was fired the day after USC failed to stop UCLA’s running game last Nov. 19.
Keith Burns, who had coached the safeties, was promoted to the coordinator’s spot and he has crafted an attacking, aggressive 5-2 defense designed to stifle offenses, not watch and react.
“What we want is for our five front people this year to be big, fast, tough guys who can pinch the offense down to its center,” said Burns. “We want one guy to get through, to make something happen, to start a chain reaction.”
USC hopes the big charger in that front line will be 330-pound sophomore Darrell Russell, whom Robinson believes is on his way to becoming a star.
The other returnees up front are seniors Marcus Bonds, Stu Gage and Izzy Ifeanyi, juniors Matt Kenely, Anthony Sanford and Willie Lowery and sophomore George Perry. Only senior Errick Herrin, the Gulf War veteran from the Marine Corps, returns from last year’s starting linebackers.
The other regulars figure to be seniors Scott Fields and Brian Haas and sophomore Taso Papadakis.
The secondary is a strength, deep and talented. Key returnees are seniors Mario Bradley, Jesse Davis and Micah Phillips, juniors Sammy Knight and Quincy Harrison, sophomores Brian Kelly and Grant Pearsall. But three freshmen--Ken Haslip, Rashard Cook and Daylon McCutcheon--have had big training camps.
When asked if Haslip or McCutcheon, the prized freshman recruit, could wind up starting this year, Burns paused before answering.
“They sure act like it, don’t they?” he said.
Burns’ marching orders: Stop the run. The Trojans finished eighth in the Pac-10 in rushing defense last season, giving up 172 yards a game.
With an emphasis on more risk taking, Robinson said he hopes big defensive plays will enable his talented offensive team to have the ball even longer than it did last year, when it finished third in the conference in both scoring and total offense.
And to launch the post-Rob Johnson era, Robinson has all but confirmed that he will go with a two-quarterback offense. Junior Brad Otton played smoothly and competently in five games last year and will probably get the starting call for San Jose State.
Senior Kyle Wachholtz, in his fifth season, has played in only nine games but has competed evenly with Otton in camp.
USC will throw a lot from the shotgun offense and to running backs.
The major loss was graduated left tackle Tony Boselli, and senior John Michels will be his replacement. Senior Norberto Garrido starts for the third season in a row at right tackle.
Another senior, Jeremy Hogue, has the center job locked up for the second consecutive season. The guards will be sophomore Phalen Pounds, seniors Kyle Ramsay and Robert Loya and junior Clay Hattabaugh.
Loya missed nearly all of training camp because of a knee injury but should return soon. Another major loss here is sophomore Chris Brymer, who is academically ineligible.
Senior Keyshawn Johnson is only the best of a deep, talented group of wide receivers. Sophomore Larry Parker and junior college transfer Chris Miller complement Johnson. And as with the secondary, freshmen are asserting themselves. Mike Bastianelli, Tony Griffin and Billy Miller have had outstanding camps.
Tight end, for the third year in a row, is probably USC’s deepest position. The leader is senior Johnny McWilliams. Another senior, John Allred, was on his way to an outstanding season when he broke his leg in practice after the third game last season. Senior Tyler Cashman also figures here, as do freshman basketball player Rome Douglas and junior Jeff Diltz.
At running back, seniors Leonard Green and Terry Barnum, junior Shawn Walters and sophomore Delon Washington all figure to catch more passes than they did a year ago.
Walters established himself as a power back last year, finishing fourth among Pac-10 rushers with 894 yards. Barnum is a multitalented back who came from nowhere to give USC an added threat with 34 receptions last season, averaging 8.9 yards a catch.
Much was expected of breakaway threat Green, but he first pulled, then tore, a hamstring early and was never sound physically. He’s had an outstanding camp.
Washington had a stellar 1994 opener, a 109-yard game against Washington, gained 44 yards against Penn State and then was grounded by USC for eight weeks while questions regarding his academic eligibility were cleared up.
Long-distance kickoff specialist Cole Ford is gone, but the Trojans have one of the nation’s best punters, senior John Stonehouse. He averaged 44 yards a punt last year and iced the 1993 Washington game at Seattle with a 67-yard punt in the closing minutes.
Freshman Adam Abrams, who made 17 of his 24 field goal tries his last two high school seasons, takes over as the kicker.
Given Robinson’s history with good running teams, if his offensive line enables his backs to perform efficiently, it won’t matter much who plays quarterback.
In Robinson’s first term at USC, White gained 6,245 rushing yards and had 31 100-yard games. The yardage mark is a Pac-10 record that has never been approached.
In fact, No. 2 on the list is White’s onetime fullback, Marcus Allen, who gained 4,810 yards.
Otton, Wachholtz and Keyshawn Johnson might not be thrilled at such a development, but Robinson would be. It would mean, you see, that “the thing” would be in sight.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
DATE OPPONENT TIME Sept. 9 San Jose State 3:30 p.m. Sept. 16 Houston 7 p.m. Sept. 23 at Arizona 7 p.m. Sept. 30 Arizona State 4 p.m. Oct. 7 at California 3:30 p.m. Oct. 14 Washington State 12:30 p.m. Oct. 21 at Notre Dame 1:30 p.m. Oct. 28 at Washington 12:30 p.m. Nov. 4 Stanford TBA Nov. 11 at Oregon State TBA Nov. 18 UCLA TBA
All times Pacific and subject to television
THE GAMBLE: Stanford goes with Tyrone Willingham, who has no experience as a head coach, to replace legend and resident genius Bill Walsh. C4
CLEARED TO PLAY: Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips is eligible while an investigation continues, the NCAA has ruled. C4
PACIFIC 10: The conference has gone from the “Year of the Quarterback” to a season of largely new quarterbacks. USC is the overwhelming favorite. C5