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Trojans Got Senior Discount

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They are seniors. As in seen it all.

They went to the Rose Bowl as freshmen and thought that was only the beginning.

“All Rose Bowls,” USC safety Rashard Cook figured it would be.

“Rose Bowl every year,” receiver Billy Miller said. “National championship, throw that in there. At least one of ‘em.”

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Turned out, that first Rose Bowl was the only one. But as USC says goodbye to 19 seniors today against Texas Christian in the Sun Bowl, it is saying goodbye to a hardy crowd, who:

* Won a Rose Bowl against Northwestern as freshmen.

* Saw their world turned upside down as sophomores, but ended a 13-year winless streak against Notre Dame.

* Lost their coach, John Robinson, as juniors.

* Came back to a new world as seniors with Paul Hackett, and brought USC back to 8-4 and its first bowl game in three years. And lost to UCLA again.

“Don’t let nobody fool you. The UCLA game is big,” Miller said. “We see them all the time. You’ve got friends, a lot of guys have got family members that go there. I’ve got a cousin that goes there. Guys from high school football. . . .”

Next year, they say, the USC teammates they leave behind will end the eight-year streak that they could not stop.

“We’ve got to come back for that one,” Cook said.

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It will all go by so fast, they want to tell the players who will follow them.

Remember Daylon McCutcheon’s first big moment as a Trojan, in USC’s season-opener against San Jose State his freshman year?

“First pass ever against him. Picked it off. That started it,” Miller said.

“They expected that every game after that,” Cook said.

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A heralded tailback-turned-cornerback from La Puente Bishop Amat, McCutcheon ran that interception back 35 yards for a touchdown.

“I was like, man, this is easy,” McCutcheon said with a laugh.

He found out how easy it wasn’t the rest of his career when the expectations that went along with his big debut and being Lawrence McCutcheon’s son sometimes seemed overwhelming.

But back then, sometimes it did seem easy. A 9-2-1 season and a Rose Bowl victory as freshmen. McCutcheon scored a touchdown in the Rose Bowl too, recovering a fumble and running it back 53 yards.

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Larry Parker, a senior this season after redshirting last year because of a foot injury that threatened to end his career, was a sophomore on that Rose Bowl team and caught a pass in the game.

“I got in,” Parker said.

“Yeah, I got in too,” Miller said. “Wide open, nobody covered me.”

Said Cook: “I got in on special teams. I was like, run down there and hit somebody. I’ve got to get on that tape, tell everybody I played in the Rose Bowl.”

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The bloom came off the Rose the next season, when No. 7 USC lost to No. 11 Penn State in the Kickoff Classic, 24-7.

“I really felt that was the year,” Miller said. “It went downhill from there. Then, personally, I had a terrible season, so that whole year can just be forgotten about.”

Miller donned the No. 3 jersey Keyshawn Johnson left behind and promptly began to drop passes, an affliction so bad it became a mental block for him--but one he overcame to lead USC in receiving his junior and senior years.

People talk about R. Jay Soward because he is so spectacular, but it has been Miller over the long haul.

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With only two catches today, he’ll become the fourth-leading receiver in USC history, trailing only Johnnie Morton, Johnson and John Jackson.

That sophomore year, he and his teammates watched their dreams unravel. Five losses in a seven-game stretch put Robinson’s job on the line.

“That was crazy, that whole time, starting with the UCLA game,” Cook said. “We lost to UCLA, and it was like, ‘Robinson’s out of here, they’re going to fire him, they’re going to fire him.’ Then we beat Notre Dame, and it cooled off a little bit.”

Linebacker Mark Cusano, another of these seniors, batted away Ron Powlus’ fourth-down pass in overtime, and USC had a victory, ending a 13-game winless streak.

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“That was Lou Holtz’s last game,” Cook said. “We couldn’t let him go with a win.”

It was the first of three years of starring plays against Notre Dame by Cusano. But the Robinson saga was far from over.

“Then all of a sudden the next year it’s, ‘They’re going to fire him,’ again,” Cook said. “Then they end up doing it. It was crazy. We thought he was going to be there, then all of a sudden he’s gone and we’re waiting to see who it will be. It was crazy.”

They couldn’t stop Robinson from losing his job. It happened after a 6-5 season and another loss to UCLA despite a win in South Bend, the first since 1981.

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“It was hard. Hard,” Parker said. “He was the sole reason I came here. In a way you almost look at him as your second parent. Like my guardian almost. And to see your guardian gone, it was hard.

“I talked to him one time this year. I gave him a call. I just needed to talk to him.”

Cook nodded.

“Coach Robinson, I went to the press conference, and we’d never seen him that way, I mean not even after a loss. Seeing how hurt he was. We were just like, what are we going to do now? Who’s going to be our coach? We were just sitting there confused.”

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“Honestly,” Miller said. “It was a situation where Coach Robinson got fired, and we didn’t know what to expect.

“We all knew in this room we were too old to transfer. It was too late for that. We had to stick it out. Other people had thoughts of transferring. For us, it was like, we’re stuck, we’ve got to stay here no matter who they bring in, and just play ball.

“Everyone at first, was like, ‘I’ve got to do it myself, I’ve just got to worry about me. Forget the team.’ But then Coach Hackett came in here, after the first couple of talks, he convinced us things were going to be all right. It kind of changed a couple of attitudes.”

“Bottom line, we weren’t working hard as players,” Parker said.

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“Maybe that’s why he got fired,” Cook said. “He took the blame for everything we did. Not going to a bowl for two years. He could have easily come out and pointed fingers saying this guy’s not doing his job, that guy’s not doing his job, that’s why we’re not winning. He always said, ‘I’ve got to coach better.’

“Even this year, if the players aren’t playing, you’re not going to win. You could have brought in John Madden, whatever. Once you start losing a couple of games, you almost forget how to win. Like the Rose Bowl year, almost no matter what went wrong, we were going to win. ‘We’ll come back, we’ve got Keyshawn, we’ve got Brad [Otton].’ They’d just bring us back, no problem.

“I think we lost confidence those other years, when we were used to winning, used to being in the lead. I think we panicked.”

This season, they held it together, except for two games that haunt them--California and Oregon.

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They still think about the California game, in which they blew a 21-point lead and lost.

“I do,” Parker said. “I do.”

Parker’s penalty behind the play called back a touchdown run by Petros Papadakis and helped Cal turn the tide.

“Those two games killed us, and those are two teams we should never, ever lose to,” Miller said. “I don’t care if they’re undefeated. Cal and Oregon. Going into that game, I was still, like, this is Oregon. We’re USC. And Cal?

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“Never,” Cook said. “That was crazy right there.”

Said Miller: “With the schedule we had, if we went 10-2, we’d be in a BCS game. Top 10 in the country.

“I just think the players right now need to play like, and feel like, ‘We are USC and nobody can play with us. No matter who steps on the field, we are going to win the game.’ ”

“Yeah, and not only just think it,” Parker said. “In the past, we just thought we were USC and that meant something, but now we’ve got the work ethic. It’s important. We are USC, and it’s on the upswing. It’s going to turn around.

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“I think we’re leaving the team where SC’s just about to come back on its upswing, and get back to the top.”

It will have to be the players who come after them who finish the job.

“I’d just say to them, what you did in high school, what you did in the past, doesn’t mean anything,” McCutcheon said.

“I think one of the biggest things, it seems like some people don’t take college seriously. They think of college as just like a bus stop. A stop to go to the NFL. You know, in high school, it was all about high school, we want to win the championship. People come here, and it’s like, ‘If we win the national championship, we win it, but I want to go to the NFL.’ People stop having fun.

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“People put pressure on themselves. I mean, when you have scouts out at practice, you’re sitting there and a scout’s staring at you and you get beat deep, or drop a ball or something like that. That’s like, man, you’re playing Washington that week and the last thing on your mind is Washington. You’re thinking about, man, the Washington Redskins just saw me get beat deep, forget the Huskies!”

Miller laughed.

“That is the truth,” he said. “Everybody wants to be remembered in a positive way. But that’s not always going to happen. Even some of the greatest players in the past few years are not remembered in a positive way.

“Everybody wants to be remembered [as] a great football player, a good person who worked hard. Two years from now, they may not remember who Billy Miller is. They talk about Carson Palmer wearing No. 3 next year. That’s the number he wants to wear. They forget about who wore it before. Keyshawn wore it, then somebody wore it. It’s tough, it’s tough.”

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And after today, it will be over.

“When we came out of the tunnel at the Coliseum before the Notre Dame game, when I walked down I saw all the old players, all the great players that played for USC,” McCutcheon said. “That caught me off guard. When I saw all those guys, how much love they had for the team, how much love they had for us. One of these days, I’ll be one of those guys.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Troy Story

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How the USC football team has fared over the last four seasons:

*--*

Season Coach Record Bowl 1997-98 Paul Hackett 8-4 Sun Bowl 1996-97 John Robinson 6-5 None 1995-96 John Robinson 6-6 None 1994-95 John Robinson 9-2-1 Rose Bowl*

*--*

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* Defeated Northwestern, 41-32


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