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Trojans Making Ends Meet

Times Staff Writer

USC defensive ends Frostee Rucker and Lawrence Jackson share the same attitude about dominating an opponent.

But just as they do on the field, they come at it from opposite directions.

“We take detours to get to the same spot,” Jackson said.

On Wednesday, when the top-ranked Trojans play second-ranked Texas in the Rose Bowl, the loquacious Rucker and the philosophical Jackson hope to converge often -- in a pile atop Texas quarterback Vince Young.

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Rucker, a senior, and Jackson, a sophomore, are regarded as key components in USC’s scheme to contain Young and neutralize a Longhorn offense that averages a nation-leading 50.9 points a game.

USC Coach Pete Carroll recently described Young, who finished second to USC’s Reggie Bush in Heisman Trophy balloting, as “a scrambler and an edge runner,” a maddeningly gifted player who reads defensive ends when he is on the move and often leaves them far behind on his way to game-breaking plays.

In last year’s Rose Bowl, Young almost single-handedly shredded Michigan’s defense in a dramatic last-second victory. The 6-foot-5, 233-pound junior leads the nation in passing efficiency and is also the Longhorns’ top rusher.

“There’s nobody like this,” Carroll said Friday. “There’s guys that can run, there’s guys that can throw, there’s quick guys and all that, but nobody’s ever been this fast.”

Rucker and Jackson intend to slow down Young with a combination of athletic ability, discipline and football smarts.

“We’re a pretty good team,” Jackson said. “We proved we can do some damage as a duo.”

Rucker has 12 tackles for losses, including 6 1/2 sacks. Jackson had a team-best 13 tackles for losses and 10 sacks. Both were voted first-team All-Pacific 10 by conference coaches.

Texas Coach Mack Brown said the 6-3, 260-pound Rucker and the 6-5, 265-pound Jackson present a variety of challenges for a Longhorn team seeking its first national title since 1970.

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“They’re big but they’re athletic and they can really run,” Brown said. “They’re the two best defensive ends we’ve seen this year.”

Rucker and Jackson are experienced veterans for a defensive line that opened the season as a question mark because of the departure of coach Ed Orgeron and All-America tackles Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson. But under the guidance of Jethro Franklin, Rucker and Jackson teamed with sophomore nose tackle Sedrick Ellis and senior tackle LaJuan Ramsey to form a steadfast front.

“We knew it was going to be on our shoulders to lead the other guys,” Rucker said.

Rucker played at Tustin High and transferred to USC from Colorado State in 2002, after he received a one-year deferred sentence for harassing a female student.

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In 2003, he backed up senior Omar Nazel for most of the season, but started five of the last six games, including the Rose Bowl, because Nazel injured his thumb.

Last season, Rucker started all but one game despite a nagging toe injury that limited his effectiveness.

“I couldn’t turn, I couldn’t do a lot of things,” he said. “It kind of stunk for me last year because I knew what I was capable of and I just wasn’t getting it done and there was nothing I could do about it.”

Rucker, 22, had toe and shoulder surgeries during the spring and returned for training camp determined to show coaches and pro scouts the player he could be when injury free.

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Rucker had nine tackles against Notre Dame and recorded seven tackles in three other games. He finished as the Trojans’ second-leading tackler.

“He’s so much more fit physically than he was a year ago,” Carroll said. “He’s chased the ball really well and made plays like a veteran. He’s had a really productive year just causing problems in the backfield.”

Jackson, 20, is fulfilling the promise he showed when he arrived from Inglewood High in 2003.

Last season, as a redshirt freshman, he replaced All-American Kenechi Udeze and started all but one game while developing into a force in the shadow of Patterson and Cody.

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Jackson began this season with two sacks and a deflection against Hawaii and had a team-best seven tackles -- 2 1/2 for losses -- at Arizona State. In the season finale against UCLA, he forced two fumbles and had three sacks.

“He plays really consistently hard and does things right all the time so he’s in position to make plays,” Carroll said.

Not enough, however, to satisfy Jackson, who measures himself against Cody and Patterson.

“There were a couple of games where I missed opportunities I shouldn’t have,” he said. “That just comes with experience.

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“The plays that Shaun and Mike made their senior year are probably the ones they missed a few times when they were juniors. That’s the difference between being a good player and being an All-American.”

Jackson, who is draft-eligible, said recently that he would forgo a chance to turn pro and return in 2006.

He hopes to send off Rucker with a third consecutive national title.

To accomplish that, the ends agree, they must control Young.

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“We’ll have a great scheme,” Jackson said. “It’s up to us to execute it.”

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End game

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The game-by-game records in 2005 of USC defensive ends Lawrence Jackson and Frostee Rucker, including tackles, tackles for loss and yards lost, deflections, fumble recoveries and interceptions:

*--* LAWRENCE JACKSON Opponent T TL-Yds Dfl FR Int Hawaii 4 2-11 1 0 0 Arkansas 4 0-0 0 0 0 Oregon 4 0.5-4 0 0 0 Arizona State 7 2.5-14 0 0 0 Arizona 2 0-0 2 0 0 Notre Dame 4 1-4 0 0 0 Washington 2 1-4 1 0 0 Washington State 3 1-8 1 1 0 Stanford 3 1-9 2 1 0 California 1 0-0 0 0 0 Fresno State 7 1-7 0 0 0 UCLA 5 3-15 0 0 0 Totals 46 13-76 7 2 0

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*--* FROSTEE RUCKER Opponent T TL-Yds Dfl FR Int Hawaii 4 1-2 0 0 0 Arkansas 5 2.5-21 0 0 0 Oregon 7 3-12 0 0 0 Arizona State 6 0.5-2 0 0 0 Arizona 3 0-0 0 0 0 Notre Dame 9 0.5-1 0 0 0 Washington 7 2-11 0 1 0 Washington State ---- Did Not Play ---- Stanford 7 1.5-2 1 0 1 California 1 0-0 0 0 0 Fresno State 1 0-0 0 0 0 UCLA 1 1-5 0 0 0 Totals 51 12-56 1 1 1

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