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No Mistake About It, These Guys Are Good

AUBURN, Ala. -- Omar Nazel stood in the middle of a steaming field at the end of an angry night, his shirt unstained, his smile untouched.

“This is a big first step, a huge first step,” he beamed. “But it’s just one step in our 12-step program.”

Call it National Champions Anonymous.

One game into the season, Nazel’s USC has placed itself on a path toward the top, and if you don’t believe it, then you spent Saturday night flat on your back with your head spinning.

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Sort of like Auburn.

The Trojans didn’t just beat them, 23-0.

“We came out smokin’,” receiver Mike Williams said.

The Trojans didn’t simply hold one of the nation’s most touted rushing attacks to 1.2 yards per carry.

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“They started getting off the ground slower and slower, then they started yelling at each other,” linebacker Lofa Tatupu said.

The Trojans didn’t just nearly double Auburn’s yardage with rookie starters at quarterback and running back.

“In the end, they were so quiet, you could hear them breathing hard,” running back Hershel Dennis said.

And, thus, contrary to all that preseason pulp, the Trojans are far more than the eighth-ranked team in the country.

They should have ended last season among the top two, and they should be there today, fortified by some eye-opening new kids and a schedule that does not include another game in a world as nasty as this.

Eighty-eight degree temperatures. Eighty-six thousand orange-clad fans chanting, “War Eagle.” The mystique of the Southeastern Conference, wrapped around the biggest home opener in Auburn history, in the shadow of a giant billboard of Bo Jackson.

“Coming in here is about as difficult as you can get,” Trojan Coach Pete Carroll said.

And the Trojans beat the sixth-ranked Tigers as comprehensively as one can.

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“War Eagle?” It should have been “War Beagle,” considering USC dragged Auburn around the field as if on a leash.

“We just got outplayed offensively, defensively and special teams,” Auburn nose guard DeMarco McNeil said.

Um, son, you’re forgetting something. The Tigers were also thoroughly outcoached, with Carroll’s defense and Norm Chow’s offense throwing Tommy Tuberville into a tizzy.

At the end of the first half, in an amazing sequence, Tuberville left two timeouts on the scoreboard while the Trojans ran out the clock deep in their territory. The score was only 10-0, but it was as if Auburn had already given up.

“They were all over us,” Tuberville said.

As if realizing that Tuberville was backpedaling, Chow began the second half with a misdirection option pass from new quarterback Matt Leinart to new tight end Dominique Byrd, who was all alone and rumbled 42 yards to set up a field goal.

It was the backbreaking play of the game, a perfect melding of new talent and an old head, with only one tiny problem.

Said a smiling Chow: “He should have scored.”

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Said a smiling Mike Williams: “Hey, he was thankful to be tackled, or else he would have passed out.”

Said a frowning Byrd: “C’mon.... “

The Trojan locker room was the same loose place that it had become during last year’s late-season run. Close your eyes, and this could have been the postgame Orange Bowl, humidity and all.

“There was lots of controversy this summer, everybody saying, ‘How good are they going to be? How are they going to respond to losing all those guys?’ ” Nazel said.

As with all Carroll teams here, they first responded with speed.

Unbelievably, the Trojans seem faster than last year, particularly on a defense where linemen were dropping back to cover receivers and safeties were breathing on the quarterback.

“We knew they had a lot of speed,” Auburn receiver Jeris McIntyre said. “They showed it to us, time and time again tonight.”

Then they responded with the kids.

Leinart wasn’t spectacular in replacing Carson Palmer, but he wasn’t silly, either. He completed his first career pass for a touchdown less than three minutes into the game, made a couple of bad throws later, but spread the ball to seven different receivers and never made a big mistake.

Said Williams: “There is one big difference between him and Carson. In the huddle, Carson always looked straight ahead while Matt looks at everybody.”

Said Leinart: “I just want everyone to know me as the leader.”

Dennis didn’t blow anybody away like Justin Fargas, but he too was consistent enough, gaining yards in mostly short sprints before blowing into the end zone on a 14-yard touchdown burst from a pile of several tacklers.

And did we say that neither of them -- or anybody on the team -- committed a turnover? A rookie backfield and no rookie errors?

That was only one of the amazing things on a night that began with thoughts of only Auburn, but ended with a peek ahead to a schedule with only one game remaining against a team in the preseason top 20, at Washington on Oct. 25.

“What it means, I don’t know,” a sweat-soaked Pete Carroll said of Saturday’s steamroller.

Oh yes he does.

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com.


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