'Anything Can Happen'

Times Staff Writer

Nearly every statistical and emotional indicator points to a USC victory over UCLA today at the Coliseum.

None, however, factor in worst-case scenarios that could befall the Trojans once the game begins.

USC players were reluctant this week to consider specifics that could prevent them from defeating the Bruins for the fifth consecutive time, an outcome that would knock the heavily favored Trojans out of contention for the Sugar Bowl, and possibly, the Rose Bowl.

But the 9-1 Trojans know they are not immune to defeat.

"We lost to Cal," junior defensive lineman Shaun Cody said. "Anything can happen."

USC has won six games in a row since the triple-overtime loss at California on Sept. 27. The Trojans are third behind No. 1 Oklahoma and Ohio State in the bowl championship series standings.

If USC defeats UCLA and Oregon State, the Trojans will qualify for the Rose Bowl. But if Michigan defeats Ohio State today, and USC wins its final two games, the Trojans could be headed to New Orleans to play for their first national title since 1978.

UCLA (6-5, 4-3), of course, would like nothing more than to end its losing streak against the Trojans and spoil its rivals' chances of playing in January.

"They're a good team and we know this game could make their season," USC linebacker Dallas Sartz said.

The worst-case scenario for USC Coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Norm Chow would be an early injury that knocks quarterback Matt Leinart out of the game.

Leinart, a redshirt sophomore in his first season as the starter, has run the offense even more efficiently than Carson Palmer did last season en route to winning the Heisman Trophy.

Leinart has passed for 28 touchdowns with only seven interceptions. In six games since the loss at Cal, he has thrown for 1,738 yards and 20 touchdowns with one interception.

At 6 feet 5 and 220 pounds, Leinart's ability to sustain tough hits was a question mark before the season. But he demonstrated toughness and resiliency against Arizona State when he was knocked out of the game because of injuries in the second quarter, then limped out of the locker room after halftime and led the Trojans to victory.

If Leinart goes down against a Bruin team that features Pac-10 sack leader Dave Ball, USC will turn to freshman John David Booty, who has completed five of 11 passes for 81 yards in limited work since playing for the first time against Stanford on Oct. 11.

With 92,000 expected at the Coliseum, it would present the kind of setting Booty seems destined to play in at some point.

"We would still be able to overcome the challenge," Booty said. "I can hand the ball off to No. 5 [Reggie Bush], 21 [LenDale White] and 34 [Hershel Dennis]. Coach Chow knows how to scheme things up.

"It would definitely be a stage."

USC also could be in trouble if the Trojans suddenly become plagued by turnovers and penalties.

USC is tied for second in the nation in turnover margin at plus-15. The Trojans have been called for only 55 penalties -- the fewest in the conference.

"If we come out flat and lollygagging around the first half, and turn the ball over and have big penalties, it's hard to come back for any team," senior offensive lineman Lenny Vandermade said. "We can't put them in great situations that could ultimately hurt us."

Though UCLA has failed to move the ball on offense with any consistency, the Bruins are hoping that USC's secondary suffers breakdowns similar to those the Trojans experienced at Cal.

Golden Bear quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Reggie Robertson passed for 326 yards and burned the Trojans for three touchdowns.

Senior cornerback Marcell Allmond, however, said there would not be a repeat.

"We'd have to go out there and have a lot of missed assignments, a lot of missed tackles and not execute and play like Coach Carroll taught us to play," Allmond said. "And that is not going to happen. Not against UCLA."

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