Reggie Bush demonstrated last season that he was a threat to score almost every time he touched the ball for USC.
However, on a national championship team that featured several older offensive stars, Bush played a supporting role.
On Saturday night, Bush took the spotlight on a national stage not far from the nation’s capital. He caught three touchdown passes from quarterback Matt Leinart as the top-ranked Trojans defeated Virginia Tech, 24-13, before a sellout crowd of 91,665 in the Black Coaches Assn. Kickoff Classic at FedEx Field.
“He makes defenses kind of look silly,” Leinart said.
Unlike 2003, when they opened the season by shutting out Auburn, 23-0, in hostile territory, the heavily-favored Trojans had to overcome a 10-7 halftime deficit and a pulsating, pro-Virginia Tech crowd to defeat an unranked opponent coming off an 8-5 season.
“What I’m most proud of is that when you could have doubted, like maybe this was not going to be our day, in the locker room guys just kept talking about the second half and believing in finishing like we have in years past,” Coach Pete Carroll said.
The Trojans came back by throwing the ball to Bush from a variety of sets and by clamping down on Virginia Tech quarterback Bryan Randall in the second half.
Bush, a sophomore running back from San Diego, turned a first-quarter screen pass into a 35-yard touchdown, put the Trojans ahead to stay with a 53-yard scoring play in the third quarter and all but finished off the Hokies with a 29-yard touchdown catch in the fourth.
“He is a guy that turns the ballgame around in a hurry,” Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer said.
Bush said he was not trying to make up for the loss of flanker Keary Colbert, the Trojans’ all-time receptions leader, or wide receiver Mike Williams, who was ruled ineligible by the NCAA on Thursday. Nor did he intend to make the first game of the 2004 season a personal showcase.
“I just wanted to come out here and contribute any way I could,” said Bush, who contributed 258 all-purpose yards.
Leinart was admittedly “shaky” early in the game, but finished fast. He completed 19 of 29 passes for 272 yards and three touchdowns without an interception and has now thrown 41 touchdown passes in 14 starts.
“On a day when they were tough on us and they gave us a lot of problems, we needed big players to come through and make big plays,” Carroll said. “Matt and Reggie did it.”
The Trojans also got a solid performance from sophomore running back LenDale White, who gained 78 yards in 15 carries, and a defensive front that finally slowed down Randall and sacked him four times.
Randall was effective in the first half, slipping tackles and breaking off several big gains. He burned the Trojans with 96 yards rushing and passed for 84 yards and a touchdown to stake his team to a 10-7 halftime lead.
“I was just hoping he might hyperventilate because we weren’t able to stop him,” Carroll said.
Randall’s exploits and some protection breakdowns by USC’s rebuilt offensive line helped put the Trojans in an unfamiliar position at halftime.
“It was tense,” senior linebacker Matt Grootegoed said. “Some of the younger guys were a little in shock.”
Bush put the Trojans ahead late in the third quarter when he lined up wide to the left, blew past cornerback Jimmy Williams and caught a perfect pass from Leinart for a 53-yard touchdown and a 14-10 lead.
“Any matchup with me and a corner, I would like to think that I’m going to win,” Bush said.
The Hokies, however, kept the pressure on.
Early in the fourth quarter, Randall drove his team from its 30 to the Trojan 25, and Brandon Pace kicked his second field goal of the game, a 42-yarder that cut the deficit to 14-13.
USC did not waste any time answering.
The Trojans started on their 14 and moved to the 25 for a first down on a two-yard sneak by Leinart.
On the next play, Leinart passed to flanker Steve Smith streaking up the middle of the field. Smith pulled the ball in for a 46-yard gain, giving the Trojans a first down at the Hokies’ 29.
Bush lined up in the backfield and ran a pass route around right end. Virginia Tech linebacker Blake Warren tripped, leaving Bush wide open for his third touchdown catch with 5:35 left.
USC led, 21-13, then extinguished Virginia Tech’s final threat when defensive tackle Mike Patterson stripped the ball from Randall and cornerback Ronald Nunn recovered the fumble with 2:01 left.
The Trojans got a 41-yard field goal by Ryan Killeen with 54 seconds left for the final margin.
USC has a bye next week before playing Colorado State at home on Sept. 11.
The Trojans have won 15 consecutive games at the Coliseum and appear to be on track to extend that streak.
Senior defensive tackle Shaun Cody welcomed the chance to regroup before another team takes its best shot against the nation’s top-ranked team.
“Virginia Tech put up a good fight and it’s going to be that way every week,” he said. “This was a good one to get out of the way.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Pete Carroll remains undefeated in season openers at USC:
Sept. 1, 2001
at USC 21, San Jose St. 10
* Sultan McCullough ran for 167 yards and three touchdowns, and quarterback Carson Palmer completed his first nine passes on the way to a 21-for-28, 213-yard game with one interception.
Sept. 2, 2002
at USC 24, Auburn 17
* Palmer, who finished 23 of 32 for 302 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions, engineered the game-winning 50-yard, 13-play drive in the fourth quarter.
Aug. 30, 2003
USC 23, at Auburn 0
* The Trojan defense forced three turnovers and limited the run-oriented Tigers to 43 rushing yards. Quarterback Matt Leinart, a sophomore making his first start, passed for 192 yards and a touchdown.