When Washington State’s Ryan Leaf drops back to pass Saturday, he’ll be staring at a quarterback’s dilemma.
He’ll see cornerback Daylon McCutcheon on one side of the field, and if Leaf is like most quarterbacks, his eyes will quickly dart to the other side.
But over there, he’ll find the other half of USC’s matched pair, cornerback Brian Kelly--and not much of an option. “You can be shot or you can be stabbed,” USC defensive coordinator Keith Burns said. “Both hurt.”
McCutcheon has the name, but he isn’t the only one who has a game.
“Brian Kelly is not as famous as Daylon McCutcheon, but Brian Kelly is a big-time player,” Coach John Robinson said.
Kelly got more attention for the pass he didn’t catch against Florida State--the near-interception at the 11-yard line that might have turned the game toward USC--but the sum of his outing was an eye-catching defensive performance. He broke up four passes, made five tackles and had an interception that was wiped out by an offside penalty against USC.
Teams that play the Trojans have long since learned not to throw at McCutcheon, a junior who ends up looking like the Maytag repairman during many games: He doesn’t get much work.
With Kelly at the other corner this season, it will be interesting to see if the strategy remains the same.
“If it were me, I wouldn’t go at Brian either after the game he had last week,” Burns said.
Keep it coming, said Kelly, a senior.
“I thrive on that. Being a corner, you want that competition, you want the ball thrown your way.”
He got it thrown his way plenty against the Seminoles, and Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden finally had a word for him.
“Stop covering so well,” Bowden told Kelly. “Stop throwing it,” said a delighted Kelly, who practically challenges teams to keep trying to pick on him.
“They’ll lose that battle,” he said.
Leaf, a 6-foot-6, 238-pound junior, should provide more of a test than Florida State’s Thad Busby, who consistently overthrew his receivers going deep, though he found them open on slants.
Against USC last season, Leaf passed for 314 yards in the Trojans’ 29-24 come-from-behind victory at Pullman. In the Cougars’ opening game this season, he riddled UCLA for 381 yards and three touchdowns in a 37-34 victory.
Washington State didn’t play last week, so Leaf watched USC’s 14-7 loss to Florida State on television. After that, he knew what he’d be doing all week.
“I’ll be watching film, watching No. 1 and No. 42, seeing what they’re doing,” Leaf said. “I was really impressed with Brian Kelly. He and McCutcheon are exactly what their press says, two great corners who are going to be playing in the NFL in a year or so.
“Kelly’s real strong and physical, in your face. McCutcheon’s more of a cover guy, a finesse player who likes to make you think somebody’s open, then jump in and pick off a pass.
“I think [USC] will throw some things out to try to confuse me, bring some blitzes. They could do like they did last year and sit back in a zone and pick me off, or maybe they’ll come hard and make me throw short.
“I think I’ll be able understand what they’re trying to do after the first couple of plays from scrimmage. I’ll be prepared for both things.”
Leaf was second in the Pacific 10 Conference in total offense as a sophomore last season with 2,675 yards, trailing only California’s Pat Barnes, now a backup with the Kansas City Chiefs.
But Leaf carries with him a tantalizing statistic: Though he didn’t throw an interception against UCLA, he threw 12 last season--two into the hands of McCutcheon.
McCutcheon had an interception in the opener against Florida State, but Kelly is still waiting for his first of the season after losing one because USC was offside and dropping the other--that gift just outside the Florida State end zone.
It was USC’s big opportunity, and Kelly said it “hurt,” but he has handled his failure to hang on to the ball with grace, and it’s clear it didn’t crush him.
“I was brought up strong by my parents,” he said. “Mentally, I prepared myself that that’s a possibility. Anything can happen.
“You could be the hero or you could be the goat. That’s the nature of that position.”
Kelly gets plenty of respect from his teammates, including the one who understands the position best.
“I think he’s definitely one of the best athletes on this football team,” McCutcheon said. “If anyone is underestimated, it’s Brian Kelly. Come draft time, he’s going to go high.”
Kelly has been held in high regard from the minute he arrived from Aurora, Colo. Jersey numbers aren’t taken lightly at USC, and Kelly was issued No. 42, the number of Ronnie Lott, the USC All-American who became an NFL all-pro safety.
“I just came and looked on the roster and my number was 42,” Kelly said. “I didn’t come with a number in mind. I got what was handed to me, and I was honored to get this number. I understand its significance.”
Kelly started at free safety last season, moving over to fill a need after starting at least eight games at cornerback both as a freshman and sophomore. This season, sophomore Chad Morton moved to safety and Kelly went back to his natural position.
“It does feel good,” he said. “It feels like being at home. I played safety because that’s what the team needed. But even when I was on the field, I couldn’t help sometimes peeking over at the corners.”
Forgive opposing quarterbacks if they take a peek at McCutcheon and Kelly and just want to close their eyes.