A sea of orange and a tidal wave of sound filled Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday before USC took the field for its season opener against Auburn.
The sun-soaked sellout crowd of 86,063 was not about to offer the eighth-ranked Trojans any Southern hospitality in the moments before they kicked off to the sixth-ranked Tigers.
But it took USC only one defensive series to quell the bedlam, and the Auburn faithful that remained until the end of the game looked as stunned as Tiger players after USC posted a 23-0 victory that put the Trojans in the hunt for a national title.
“Our goal when we go on the road is to try and play well enough that you make the other crowd have nothing to cheer about,” USC Coach Pete Carroll said. “The silence, if that’s what you would call it, was gorgeous today.”
Carroll, also the defensive coordinator, felt the same way about the zero the Trojans hung on the Tigers, who were designated as the nation’s top team by several publications.
The Trojans weathered the 88-degree temperature and humidity to record their third shutout under Carroll and their first shutout in an opener since 1973, when they beat Arkansas, 17-0, at the Coliseum. It was the first shutout in an opener on the road since 1963, when USC defeated Colorado, 14-0, at Boulder.
USC, which has won nine games in a row dating to last season, forced three turnovers and limited the run-oriented Tigers to only 43 rushing yards and 164 yards of total offense. The Trojans, led by their veteran defensive line, sacked Auburn quarterback Jason Campbell six times.
It was a much easier victory than last season’s opener against Auburn, when USC required a fourth-quarter scoring drive to defeat the Tigers, 24-17, at the Coliseum.
“A good defensive line can dominate a football game. That is exactly what happened tonight,” Campbell said. “They did it to us in the second half last year, and did it the whole night tonight.”
Middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu, a transfer from Maine making his first start, had a game-high 12 tackles for USC, including two sacks. Free safety Jason Leach had eight tackles, defensive tackle Mike Patterson seven. Linebacker Matt Grootegoed made five tackles and forced a fumble.
“It just seemed like we got stronger every time the defense went out there,” Tatupu said. “It was an awesome way to start a season.”
USC’s offense was solid, if not stellar.
Quarterback Matt Leinart, a redshirt sophomore making his first start, completed 17 of 30 passes for 192 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. Sophomore running back Hershel Dennis, making his first start, rushed for 85 yards in 21 carries and a touchdown as the Trojans amassed 315 yards of offense.
“Auburn’s defense was good, but we were taking advantage of their speed,” Dennis said. “We ran a lot of cutback plays and they were overpursuing a lot. They have fast linebackers and the linemen are also fast. We were using that against them.”
USC’s special teams also performed well. Punter Tom Malone averaged 45 yards on seven kicks and kept the Tigers pinned deep in their own territory. Ryan Killeen converted all three of his field-goal attempts from 28, 42 and 35 yards.
“Everyone did their job tonight,” Killeen said.
Leinart completed passes to seven receivers and running backs. Four plays after freshman strong safety Darnell Bing intercepted a pass with only a minute gone in the game, Leinart completed a five-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mike Williams for the first completion of his career.
“After I threw that touchdown pass and completed a few passes on third downs, I realized this was pretty easy compared to practicing against our own defense,” Leinart said.
Williams, a freshman All-American last season, had a game-high eight receptions for 104 yards and a touchdown. He gave Leinart high marks for his debut performance as the successor to Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer.
“He had no turnovers and threw some good balls,” Williams said. “He had a couple of off ones, but that’s to be expected, he’s not going to be 100% perfect.
“I give him a 9 1/2 easy [on a scale of 10]. He’s a leader in the huddle.... He hung in there, took some shots and executed.”
Offensive coordinator Norm Chow said the Trojans did not scale back their game plan for Leinart, who was playing significant minutes for the first time since 2000 when he was a senior at Santa Ana Mater Dei High.
“He was under control and took everything we threw at him,” Chow said.
USC led 10-0 at halftime on Leinart’s touchdown pass to Williams and Killeen’s 28-yard field goal.
On Auburn’s third play from scrimmage, Campbell rolled to his right from the Auburn 18-yard line and threw a pass. Cornerback Kevin Arbet tipped the ball and Bing grabbed it and returned it to Auburn’s 20-yard line.
“That set the whole tempo for the game,” Trojan defensive lineman Kenechi Udeze said. “Once we got that interception our whole defense had a swagger to it.”
On USC’s first play, Dennis rushed for a yard. On second down, Auburn cornerback Carlos Rogers was called for pass interference against flanker Keary Colbert, giving Leinart a mulligan of sorts on his first attempt.
Dennis was stopped for a one-yard loss on first-and-goal from the four before Leinart found Williams on a short slant in the end zone for a lead that was never threatened.
USC added two field goals by Killeen in the fourth quarter and a 14-yard touchdown run by Dennis in the fourth to hand Auburn its first shutout in 44 games.
Carroll said he was aware that a national television audience was watching to see if USC could maintain the level it demonstrated last season when the Trojans finished 11-2 and won the Orange Bowl.
“We talked about it in terms of the challenge of it and the opportunity, and we seized it today,” Carroll said. “We got it.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
*--* Zero Tolerance Pete Carroll doubles as USC’s defensive coordinator. A look at USC head coaches and their teams’ shutout percentage beginning with John McKay: JOHN McKAY* 16 seasons (1960-75) 175 games, 20 shutouts 11.43% JOHN ROBINSON 12 seasons (1976-82; 1993-97) 143 games, 11 shutouts 7.70% TED TOLLNER 4 seasons (1983-86) 45 games, 2 shutouts 4.44% LARRY SMITH 6 seasons (1987-92) 72 games, 2 shutouts 2.78% PAUL HACKETT 3 seasons (1998-2000) 37 games, 1 shutout 2.91% PETE CARROLL 3 seasons (2001-03) 26 games, 3 shutouts 11.5% * McKay’s 1965 team had four shutouts