It wasn’t an epiphany, or anything approaching Charles White running behind Brad Budde in Trojan salad days, but USC’s 27-17 victory against California on Saturday was good enough so its beleaguered offensive linemen might at least consider removing those Groucho get-ups in public.
“All those bleeping people talking in the paper about our O-line, that’s B.S.,” guard Travis Claridge said. “We kicked their butts in the first half.”
Being a USC lineman used to be something to brag about, yet this has been a tense 13 months for the 1,500 or so pounds of flesh that was expected to steamroller USC into the new millennium. Last year, the excuse was the line was young and lacked experience. It figured USC might end up eighth in rushing in the Pacific-10 Conference.
This year, though, all five starters returned. So when the Trojans produced 56 net rushing yards in a 0-2 start, ranking 112th among 112 Division I schools, it became a crisis.
When the NCAA statistics were released earlier this week, guard Chris Brymer nearly screamed.
“When I heard it, I thought it was a lie,” he said. “I thought I heard it wrong.”
The line was so crazed about the ranking, all the players inscribed the number “112" on their wrist bands for Saturday’s game at Memorial Stadium.
Center Jonathan Himebauch said, “112 was our battle cry.”
Most years at USC, a 123-yard net rushing performance is not something to get worked up over. But these days at USC, it’s a giant block forward.
Even though USC didn’t score, its opening drive was one of the most important for the line in recent memory.
On his first play from scrimmage, tailback LaVale Woods scampered for 12 yards, the longest run from scrimmage this season. You expected play to be stopped so that the Trojan team photographer could take a snapshot.
Woods also had runs of eight, five and seven yards on the drive, which fizzled at the Cal 38.
It did wonders for a line’s collective psyche.
“I was kind of worried,” Brymer said. “I thought this team would start falling apart, start arguing. But it pulled us together. I’m proud of that.”
The USC line had a lot of hole searching to do during last week’s bye. Coach John Robinson and line coach Mike Barry did not make life pleasant.
“It was two weeks of hell,” Claridge said. “It was worse than training camp, I think. I think we were all hyped up for this game.”
The line worked on technique and schemes. They blocked until they blistered, then blocked some more. “It hasn’t been easy for those guys,” Barry said of his unit. “They read the papers. They walked around campus and saw the looks of disgust.”
USC’s place in the NCAA pits was a bit misleading. The Trojans’ two losses came against two of the top run defenses in the country in Florida State and Washington State.
USC also played last week without Brymer, who sat out the game because of a sprained ankle. Brymer was back Saturday, and it showed.
“Brymer helped us, he’s a leader,” Robinson said. “There’s a lot of intangibles there. But everyone else picked it up too. I think offensively they were angry for not playing better football than they played.”
USC has, arguably, produced more great offensive linemen than any school in collegiate history.
For every O.J. Simpson, Ricky Bell, Charles White and Marcus Allen, there was a Ron Yary, Marvin Powell, Brad Budde and Anthony Munoz.
Since 1964, 26 USC offensive linemen have been named first-team All-America. Eighteen Trojan blockers have been first-round draft picks since 1968.
But you wonder if it can ever be that way again. You wonder, with scholarship reductions, whether schools such as USC can hoard the talent it used to hoard to grind opponents down in the fourth quarter with Student Body Right.
Most of the great running teams these days are schools devoted almost completely to the run, and mostly to the option--Nebraska, Army, Rice.
USC has made an obvious commitment to the pass in recent years to keep up with the trends.
Can the Trojans have it both ways?
“USC has a great offensive line tradition,” Brymer said. “We still have some of the best linemen in the country. The USC line can be the USC line.”
That remains to be seen. Saturday’s effort was acceptable only because it wasn’t putrid. USC lines of the past never would have allowed a 27-3 halftime lead against inferior talent to be nearly swallowed up after intermission.
USC lines of the past would have decleated Cal defenders in the second half and had them wishing the game was over.
“We should have put 250 [yards on them],” Claridge said. “We killed ourselves.”
Saturday, USC gained 79 rushing yards in the first half, only 44 in the second.
“We’re happy with the win,” Claridge said. “At the same time, we’re not that happy because our team goal was to dominate them in the second half. We didn’t get that done.”
Then again, you’ve got to crawl before you block.
“This offensive line could be solid,” Robinson said. “Going in, we thought they could be better than that. We took a step forward.”
Brymer says at least some of the burden has been lifted.
“This is off our backs, finally,” he said. “You see all the reporters here talking to the offensive line. When you win, they love you. When you lose, they hate you.”