Back in high school, Lofa Tatupu got his education in the passing game by playing quarterback.
These days, as a linebacker at USC, he is putting that knowledge to good use.
Tatupu has five interceptions in the last 10 games, none bigger than the pass he stepped in front of at Oregon State on Saturday, a turnover that ranked among the most-important moments in USC’s 28-20 victory.
The play came at the start of the second half with the Trojans in dire straits. Oregon State was leading, 13-7, before a roaring home crowd and had the ball near midfield after recovering a LenDale White fumble.
For USC, it was but the latest mistake in a mistake-filled night. It was also an opportunity for Tatupu to show how much he has been worth to this team.
The 6-foot, 225-pound player transferred to USC in the fall of 2002 from Maine, where he had started as a freshman in 2001 and was among the Black Bears’ leaders in tackles.
Tatupu says of the move: “It just keeps getting better and better. You can’t ask for anything more.”
His switch was, in some ways, a natural -- his father, Mosi, was a fullback on USC’s national championship team in 1974.
Mosi also played 14 years in the NFL with the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams.
After sitting out the 2002 season as a transfer, the younger Tatupu moved into USC’s starting lineup at middle linebacker in 2003. He had a team-high 98 tackles and four interceptions.
This season has brought more of the same.
Tatupu came into the Oregon State game with 59 tackles and eight deflections, both of which are team highs. He also had three sacks, two forced fumbles, two recovered fumbles and an interception.
His big addition to that list of highlights came with Oregon State threatening to score on a short field and take a giant step toward upsetting the No. 1-ranked Trojans.
On first and 15 at the Beavers’ 41-yard line, Tatupu dropped into pass coverage and slid in front of a receiver running down the middle of the field.
His interception of quarterback Derek Anderson’s pass not only stopped a potential drive, it set up USC for a score eight plays later, with tight end Dominique Byrd catching a 25-yard pass to give USC a 14-13 lead.
“I was like, all right, something’s coming my way,” Tatupu said of the interception.” I was trying to jump the route. It was really a gift.”
Certainly there were other big plays on defense, and it did not hurt that Reggie Bush had a 65-yard punt return for a touchdown that widened USC’s lead.
But it was Tatupu’s interception that put USC ahead for good.
“He’s very instinctual,” USC linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. said of Tatupu. “He’s the kind of guy who makes the big play when we need it.”