Trojans Will Go Deep Against Arizona State
A week ago, USC’s 2-0 football team was in Tucson, quietly confident as it prepared for its first major test, in a season brimming with promise.
USC passed that test, beating Arizona, 31-10. But that did nothing to prepare the Trojans for a test of another kind against another Arizona foe today at 4 p.m. in the Coliseum.
In Tucson, their ability was challenged. Today, something may be learned about their courage, or at least their attention span.
And maybe even something about their destiny.
Coach John Robinson’s shaken 3-0 and fifth-ranked team plays Arizona State (2-2), hopeful that the biggest scandal to hit USC football in years--the suspension of three starters Thursday--can somehow be set aside for the day.
And Robinson, still quietly seething Friday over a system that permits sports agents to corrupt college athletes and go unpunished, was as optimistic as he could be, under the circumstances.
“I’m hopeful all this might actually stimulate our team,” he said.
On Thursday, junior Shawn Walters, the team’s leading rusher the past two seasons and a preseason All-Pac-10 choice, was suspended for at least this game, as were defensive starters Errick Herrin, a linebacker, and Israel Ifeanyi, a defensive end.
An inquiry by USC, the Pac-10 and the NCAA is under way. The three are accused of having accepted money from Oxnard agent Robert Troy Caron. Walters’ case is believed to be the most serious. He is accused of having accepted $15,900 since last October.
How off-guard was USC caught by all this? Saturday’s game program has Ifeanyi and Herrin on the cover.
Still, Robinson and his staff have prepared their team for USC’s first meeting with Arizona State in three years.
The Trojans’ vaunted depth will be under scrutiny today at:
--Tailback, where, ironically, Walters had this week regained the starting job Robinson had taken away from him. Starter Leonard Green sprained his left foot at Arizona, so sophomore Delon Washington will start today.
--Linebacker, where Herrin, a 26-year-old former Marine who fought in the Gulf War, had a lock on one of the two linebacker spots in the Trojans’ new 5-2 defensive scheme. Starting for him today will be senior Brian Haas, in his first start.
--Defensive end, where Ifeanyi, a 24-year-old Nigerian by way of Orange Coast College, was USC’s sack leader with four. Starting for him is senior Marcus Bonds, roughly Ifeanyi’s size at 6 feet 6 and 250 pounds.
Wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, himself the subject of a separate NCAA investigation, advises Trojan faithful not to worry.
“We’ll play ‘em, it won’t matter what’s happened this week,” he said.
“It’s not what you think. We don’t go up there consciously thinking, ‘Hey, we’re in trouble because we don’t have our guys.’ We’ve got other good players. It won’t enter my mind once.”
One thing Robinson would like to see is the kind of ball-control offense that enabled his team to outclass Arizona last week. USC’s first three touchdowns capped drives of 94, 81 and 70 yards.
And Washington, who gained 63 yards--Walters had a game-high 66--had prominent roles in two of them, including an 18-yard touchdown burst over the right side early in the third quarter.
Robinson’s twin-towers quarterback rotation remains unchanged. Brad Otton, 6-6, starts and Kyle Wachholtz, 6-5, plays the second quarter.
ASU has to be worried about serving as target practice. The Sun Devils’ pass defense ranks ninth in the Pac-10, and Wachholtz and Otton are 1-2 in passing efficiency. Wachholtz carries a 187.19 rating and Otton a 169.83.
In easier understood numbers, Otton is a 69% passer, Wachholtz 65.7%.
USC’s young pass defense meets one of the league’s better quarterbacks in Arizona State’s Jake Plummer, who leads the Pac-10 with nine touchdowns, but who also has thrown four interceptions. He’s fifth in passing efficiency.
USC will probably again start freshman Daylon McCutcheon at cornerback for Brian Kelly, who has an ankle sprain. McCutcheon started last week and is already fifth in tackles with 12.
Herrin and Ifeanyi had a total of 28 tackles.
At his Tuesday press luncheon, before the three players were suspended, Robinson had pegged improvement as the week’s theme.
“If we stay where we are, we’ll probably go to the Holiday Bowl or the Cotton Bowl,” he said.
“We can be beaten by any of our next three opponents [ASU, Cal and Washington State]. I don’t have to make that case [to the players]. Who could have predicted Stanford would beat Oregon, or Washington State would beat UCLA?
“So we have to guard against not improving. That’s the key.”