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USC Knows It Can’t Have a Slow Start

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This isn’t just ready, set, go for USC as the Trojans open the football season today against fifth-ranked Florida State.

It’s be ready, or Florida State will already be gone.

The Seminoles have become famous for their speed and depth over the last decade--a stretch during which the Seminoles have finished in the top four of the final poll for 10 consecutive years.

“Bam! Bam! Two quick touchdowns and you might not recover,” said John Robinson, coach of the 23rd-ranked Trojans.

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Robinson could only try to prepare his team for the Seminoles’ speed by showing it to them on film.

“If we could duplicate it, we’d have the same speed they have,” he said. “You just play as fast and hard as you can.”

That’s what USC is vowing to do all season after last year’s 6-6 record.

There aren’t many stiffer tests to start out with than Florida State, especially when USC is breaking in a new quarterback, sophomore John Fox.

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Still, USC might have a rare opportunity, because the Seminoles are without three defensive starters who are suspended or injured, and might need a few games to adjust after losing tailback Warrick Dunn and quarterback-devouring linemen Peter Boulware and Reinard Wilson from last year’s 11-1 team.

An upset of the Seminoles at the Coliseum in the second game of Los Angeles’ rare doubleheader would create a swell of confidence that could propel USC through the season.

Even staying close and making a game of it could do the same. But a double-digit loss, a repeat of last season’s 24-7 setback to Penn State in the first game, could have a lasting demoralizing effect.

The attitude of USC’s players is summed up by one who doesn’t want his name used for fear of retribution by future opponents.

“We were better than everybody who beat us last year,” he said. “We might as well beat somebody who’s better than us.”

This game is a departure for Florida State, whose season-opening opponents in the 1990s have been East Carolina, Brigham Young, Duke, Kansas, Virginia, Duke and Duke again, all either at home in Tallahassee or on a neutral field.

The Seminoles have won those games by an average score of 48-18, scoring as many as 70 points and no fewer than 41.

“They like to shut you out and score about 40,” Robinson said.

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Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden took note of the difference.

“We normally open with people--I’m not going to name any names--where we might be favored 15, 25, 35 points,” he said. “All of a sudden we’re opening with Southern California. Being in this game as long as I have, you can imagine the respect I have for them.”

Win or lose, this one figures to be tougher for the Seminoles.

“Just a little,” Florida State senior linebacker Daryl Bush said with a laugh. “It will be good for us, but it’s a double-edged sword. We’ve got some inexperienced guys who have got to step up.”

The Seminoles, however, have the experience USC lacks at quarterback, where Thad Busby went 10-1 as the starter last season but still had to hold off challengers for his job.

Robinson called him a good quarterback who can run for a first down if needed.

“He knows how to play, how to read coverages and how not to lose the game,” Robinson said. “I think you want to play against a quarterback who might lose the game by throwing an interception or doing something crazy. He’s in a system that’s used to winning, and he has an expectation of winning.”

The Trojans’ Fox, even though he has hardly any experience, is big, strong-armed, mobile and confident. But he isn’t arrogant.

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“You don’t play quarterback to lose. You play quarterback because you want to win,” he said.

That aside, couldn’t the Trojans have broken him in against a team like Nevada Las Vegas, USC’s foe in early October?

“There isn’t a team in college football that you wouldn’t want your quarterback to start out against as much as Florida State,” Robinson said. “The two ends last year, thank God they’re gone. They were just unmerciful on quarterbacks. They’ll still try and do the same thing with their replacements.

“We have to organize our plan so the quarterback starts good. We can’t ask our quarterback to win the game.

“When you go into a game like this with a new quarterback, you must pay attention to getting him off successfully. He has to call the right play in the huddle, remember it’s the center that snaps the ball, not the guard, and not fumble the snap.”

Fox’s inexperience will put the focus on an offensive line that has supposedly matured since last season’s disastrous start and must be able to help USC establish the run and give Fox time to get settled. USC will be going against a Florida State defense that is missing linemen Julian Pittman and Greg Spires--Pittman is suspended, Spires injured--but the Seminoles have expressed confidence in their replacements.

USC has the edge in experience at tailback with Delon Washington, and freshman Malaefou MacKenzie is an exciting second option. Florida State, by contrast, is going with Dee Feaster as Dunn’s replacement since ballyhooed freshman Travis Minor has been injured.

A slow start is exactly what USC must avoid. It’s the first step in erasing last season’s disappointments, which began with the opener against Penn State--a game in which Robinson now says he outsmarted himself.

“Last year I made a mistake,” he said. “We had come off a Rose Bowl win and had [quarterback Brad Otton] back, and we went and played Penn State, and I thought, ‘Hey, we can beat Penn State,’ ” and tried to be too sophisticated offensively.

“But I underestimated. We had some kids who had never been on an airplane, and we took them to the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building. It was too much for those guys. We’re more experienced now, and we’re at home.

“This is exciting and it’s important. We intend to win the game.”

At the same time, Robinson knows this game doesn’t have much effect on which team goes to the Rose Bowl.

“One way or another, regardless of what happens, we have to go in the locker room and before we leave, say, ‘Beat Washington State [USC’s opening Pacific 10 Conference opponent next Saturday],’ ” Robinson said.

SUPER SATURDAY

TENNESSEE AT UCLA

Rose Bowl, 12:30 p.m., Ch. 7

FLORIDA STATE AT USC

Coliseum, 5 p.m., Ch. 7


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