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Beware The Underfrog

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If Texas Christian aims to catch USC sleeping today in the Sun Bowl, the Horned Frogs are going to have to do it with the Trojans’ eyes wide open.

USC has not missed the obvious. There are those who suggest the Trojans could be riding for a fall, an 8-4 team with all that bowl history, and a 16-point favorite against upstart TCU, a team that sneaked into a bowl game with a 6-5 record a year after going 1-10.

“We understand that a lot of people think we’re going to go in big-headed, thinking we’re going to blow them out,” receiver Billy Miller said. “I think we’re prepared.”

Safety Rashard Cook thinks so too.

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“Coming out to practice and not working and thinking your talent will be enough doesn’t work,” Cook said. “Their players are on scholarship too, and they deserve it. If you’re not prepared, anybody can be beat.”

There’s also the motivation that develops when two teams bump against each other all week around town.

“We’ve been to events with them and hear them talking, the things they’re saying in the hallways, thinking they’re going to come in and crush USC and vault their program into next year,” Miller said. “It’s over for that. I hear talk, but on the 31st, we’ll line up and play.”

Coach Paul Hackett has seemed a bit alarmist at times this week. Everything’s “scary” or “a problem.” That’s another indication the Trojans are guarding against the lackadaisical approach some people expect from a team that quite reasonably would rather have gone to Hawaii or played Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl.

“I don’t think there’s any issue of motivation,” Hackett said. “We’re not an experienced enough team to worry about what other people think. We’re a team that has blown a 21-point lead and lost to Cal. We’ve been inconsistent.

As for that 16-point spread: “I can’t imagine a team as young as ours being put in that kind of position as the favorite.”

There have even been mentions here and there of a scrap of history USC would like to forget: the 1992 Freedom Bowl loss to Fresno State.

“I don’t know if everybody on the team really remembers that, but some of us do,” Miller said. “We lost to Cal. We shouldn’t look past anybody.”

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The game could be the last hurrah for linebacker Chris Claiborne, who will announce before the Jan. 8 deadline whether he’ll skip his senior season to jump to the NFL after winning the Butkus Award and becoming a unanimous All-American.

By the way, Claiborne knows a little bit about how good that 1992 Fresno State team was. His brother, Adrian, played for the Bulldogs then, and reminded him recently that Fresno State went 9-4 and had one of the nation’s best offenses directed by future NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer.

This TCU team is not like that.

The Horned Frogs do two things well. They run the ball, and they never quit.

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Tailback Basil Mitchell rushed for 1,000 yards in TCU’s option attack. His backup, LaDainian Tomlinson, rushed for another 717, and quarterback Patrick Batteaux ran for 479--only 40 fewer than his strikingly low passing total.

But Batteaux and backup quarterback Jeff Dover combined to throw only two touchdown passes all year and the Horned Frogs averaged only 97 yards a game in the air.

TCU’s passing attack is so limited it brings to mind Notre Dame with Jarious Jackson out because of injury. USC won that game, 10-0, stacking its defense against the run and daring Notre Dame to complete a pass.

“I think we’ll see some play-action, or see them fake the option and drop back and hope to have a guy wide open because we’ve spent so much time trying to zero in on their running game,” Hackett said.

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“They have had success being able to control the ball. They win the time of possession. We’ve struggled with that all year.”

Defensively, TCU had some strong showings this season, but its big disaster came against Colorado State, a team that lit up the TCU secondary for 370 yards in a 42-21 victory.

USC quarterback Carson Palmer said he’ll be on the lookout for an all-out pass rush.

“They come after you like Washington does. They bring guys from all over the place,” he said.

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The Horned Frogs’ star is linebacker Joseph Phipps, who has statistics to rival Claiborne’s, if not his size and speed.

Phipps has 153 tackles, four interceptions, five sacks, has forced three fumbles, recovered three fumbles and blocked three kicks.

“No. 32 is a great middle linebacker,” Palmer said.

TCU made its mark this season with a 35-34 victory over Air Force--the Falcons’ only loss of the season.

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TCU also made a habit of keeping things lively, with nine of 11 games decided in the fourth quarter.

Call TCU the Underfrogs. They don’t mind.

“It’s not something this team is uncomfortable being,” said Coach Dennis Franchione, who like Hackett is in his first year. “We’ve been in that position most of the year. I don’t think our kids care much about it. They believe in themselves, regardless of who else believes.”

An upset would give TCU its first bowl victory since 1957.

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A USC victory would give the Trojans nine wins in a season for only the second time in the 1990s.

They’ll decide it on the Sun Bowl turf today.

“USC, that’s a great team,” Phipps said. “I get to watch them on television all the time. They really have a lot of great skill players, a real good quarterback and fast receivers, and a real good offensive line. It’s going to be a challenge for us. We look forward to the game.”

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SUN BOWL

USC (8-4) vs. TCU (6-5)

11 a.m. today, Channel 2

A PITT STOP: The Sun Bowl has been good for the career of Trojan Coach Paul Hackett. Page 8

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