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On-the-Ball Training Is Paying Off for Trojans

Times Staff Writer

It’s not about the Sugar Bowl, the Rose Bowl or the national title.

It’s all about the ball.

It’s not about the Heisman Trophy, All-America honors or other postseason awards.

It’s all about the ball.

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At USC, the emphasis begins and ends with the simple phrase Coach Pete Carroll uttered the first time he met with players in 2001 -- and on almost every practice or game day since.

It’s all about the ball.

Get the message?

The Trojans certainly do.

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“The ball is so precious,” senior flanker Keary Colbert said reverently.

“Protect it like your life depends on it,” agreed freshman tailback LenDale White.

“Just get to the ball!” junior cornerback Ronald Nunn exclaimed.

USC is stealing and stripping the ball from opponents on defense, and safeguarding it on offense, better than nearly every other team in the nation.

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The Trojans rank second behind Nebraska in turnover margin and have missed few opportunities to capitalize on opponents’ mistakes en route to a 10-1 record heading into Saturday’s regular-season finale against Oregon State.

USC, which is averaging 41.3 points a game, is second in the bowl championship series standings behind Oklahoma. If the Trojans defeat Oregon State, and avoid a BCS computer-driven meltdown, they could play for their first national title since 1978.

“We just have to keep doing what we’ve been doing almost all season,” senior offensive lineman Lenny Vandermade said. “Avoid mistakes and take advantage of the ones we force the other team to make.”

With quarterback Matt Leinart on his way to perhaps the most efficient performance by a USC quarterback in school history, Trojan starters on offense have played virtually without major error since halftime of their game Oct. 4 at Arizona State. Not coincidentally, USC has put together a seven-game winning streak since losing at California in triple overtime on Sept. 27.

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Leinart, a redshirt sophomore who had never thrown a pass in a college game, has thrown 30 touchdown passes and only seven interceptions. He has thrown 197 passes without an interception, one shy of the Pacific 10 Conference record set by UCLA’s Cory Paus in 2001.

USC has lost 12 fumbles, but none has caused serious damage. The opportunistic Trojans even managed to offset Hershel Dennis’ miscue near the goal-line in overtime at Cal.

Nine players have combined for 17 interceptions, and the defense and special teams have recovered 19 fumbles.

The Trojans, therefore, are at plus-17 in the take-away department with a turnover margin of 1.55.

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“Everybody on the team wants to be the leading tackler, everybody on the team wants to get all the picks and everybody on the defense wants to get the fumbles and the sacks,” said senior cornerback Will Poole, who has a team-best five interceptions. “That competition within our team makes for turnovers. Guys are running to the ball because the ball is the most important thing in our game.”

Carroll said his focus on the ball developed during his years as an NFL assistant and head coach.

“It’s my absolute No. 1 priority,” Carroll said. “It’s definitely a mind-set.”

Or an obsession.

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Trojan players got an inkling during Carroll’s initial meeting with them after he was hired to replace Paul Hackett, whose error-plagued 2000 team was minus-20 in take-aways.

“He just walked in with a football, held it up and said, ‘This is what it’s all about,’ ” recalled junior defensive end Kenechi Udeze.

The focus paid immediate dividends. In 2001 and 2002, the Trojans were plus-21 and plus-18 in take-aways, and finished both seasons ranked fifth nationally in turnover margin.

Carroll credits his staff for pushing his philosophy as vociferously as he does, especially during “Turnover Wednesdays,” weekly practices that feature extra work on forcing and avoiding miscues.

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Throughout the week, coaches never stop imploring players to hold the ball “high and tight” when running with it.

Carroll also employs visual aids. A sign that reads -- what else? -- “It’s All About the Ball” hangs on a wall outside the Trojans’ locker room at the Coliseum.

Defensive tackle Shaun Cody said the message was embedded so strongly in his brain, he made sure he gripped the ball properly as he rumbled down the sideline past Carroll after intercepting a two-point conversion pass against UCLA.

“I’m running as fast as I can and I’m thinking, ‘High and tight! High and tight!’ ” Cody said.

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After two weeks of preparation since the UCLA victory, USC is looking forward to facing an Oregon State team that comes to the Coliseum 7-4 overall and 4-3 in conference play.

The Beavers rank no lower than third in the Pac-10 in every major offensive and defensive category. But Oregon State ranks last in turnover margin at -0.45.

“We shot ourselves in the foot with the turnovers,” Oregon State Coach Mike Riley said “That has played a major role in the losses we’ve had.”

The Trojans are well aware of Oregon State’s propensity for mistakes. And their own habit of making opponents pay.

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It all goes back to that phrase ...

“If we out-do Oregon State, we’ll beat them,” Carroll said. “It’s in the books. Those are the facts.”


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