Living the dream

Times Staff Writer

Dallas Sartz could not have dreamed it, the football part anyway.

When Sartz signed with USC in 2002, the Trojans had never played in a Bowl Championship Series game and they were coming off an embarrassing loss in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Nearly five years later, the senior linebacker is preparing to play against Michigan in the Rose Bowl, USC's fifth consecutive BCS bowl game.

"I don't think anyone could have imagined this," he said.

For Sartz, fantasy became reality off the field as well.

Plenty of college-age men have pondered what it might be like to live in a houseful of attractive sorority sisters. But the chiseled, 6-foot-5 Sartz, who looks as if he just walked off the set of "Baywatch" or "Laguna Beach," experienced it during the fall.

The living arrangement came courtesy of USC volleyball player Jimmy Killian, who needed another housemate for the seven-bedroom home near campus that he shared with five women.

"I figured I might as well move in," Sartz said, suppressing a grin.

Before moving out and moving on to professional football, Sartz intends to finish his USC career with another Rose Bowl victory.

He was a sophomore starter in the Trojans' 2004 win over Michigan, a victory that clinched the Associated Press national title. But Sartz missed the 2006 BCS title game against Texas because of an early-season shoulder injury that required surgery and prompted him to redshirt and return for a fifth year.

"We would have loved to have had him last year at this time playing in the big games, he's very comfortable with that," said Coach Pete Carroll, who watched Longhorns quarterback Vince Young dissect the Trojans' defense.

Sartz, a two-year captain, has been slowed this week by a hip injury, but he said Friday that he would definitely play against Michigan.

The unassuming Sartz, 23, is the most experienced starter for what many regard as the nation's deepest and most talented linebacker corps.

Junior Keith Rivers and sophomores Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing have gained more notice during their tenures, but Sartz is the sage veteran who rarely makes mistakes and has a team-best six sacks.

"He knows everything, basically," Maualuga said.

Sartz, who played safety and tight end at Granite Bay High near Sacramento, began his learning curve during training camp in 2002. Nick Holt was USC's linebackers coach at the time.

"From the beginning, Coach Holt yelled at me more than anyone I've ever seen," Sartz recalled, chuckling.

Holt, now the defensive coordinator, said, "That was really foreign to him, being coached so aggressively, but it was because we needed him to come through."

Sartz did, backing up Matt Grootegoed and also contributing on special teams as the Trojans finished 11-2 by defeating Iowa in the Orange Bowl.

In 2003, Sartz moved into the starting lineup at midseason after Grootegoed got hurt. He had seven tackles, including a sack, and deflected a pass in USC's Rose Bowl win over Michigan as the Trojans finished 12-1 and won their first national championship since 1978.

Sartz's solid play in 2003 allowed coaches to move the smaller Grootegoed from strong-side to weakside linebacker in 2004, a shift that helped the senior achieve All-America status. Meanwhile, Sartz started every game as the Trojans went unbeaten and routed Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl to win the BCS and AP national titles.

Sartz entered last season bigger and stronger than at any time in his career. He had two sacks in the opener against Hawaii but dislocated his left shoulder in the second game against Arkansas and eventually had surgery.

"It was tough to sit and watch when you want to be out there trying to help your team win," he said. "So I just focused on trying to get ready to come back and help us this season."

Sartz's performance in the first six games was, by his estimation, OK. The Trojans were undefeated and in the hunt for a third consecutive BCS title-game berth. But Carroll sensed that something was missing in Sartz's play.

"He was doing fine, working hard, practicing hard and playing hard in games but there were times when it looked like he was conscious of his shoulder and I didn't think that he might know that," Carroll said.

One night during a midseason bye week, Carroll found Sartz watching film in the coaches' offices.

"I just addressed it with him and made a pitch to him that he needed to really go. ... He was surviving some stuff rather than just attacking," Carroll said.

Sartz's first step in solving the problem: leave the protective shoulder harness he had been wearing in his locker.

He responded with eight tackles, including three sacks, in the Trojans' 33-31 loss at Oregon State. Over the last five games, he's knocked down several passes, recovered a fumble and led the Trojans in tackles against Notre Dame and UCLA.

"Coach Carroll told me to let loose, take a few more chances, play the game and have fun out there," Sartz said.

The same game plan goes at home.

"It's a pretty mellow place," he said. "All the girls are really nice and they have their heads on straight. They're always looking out for you."

Natalie Yerushalmi, one of his five female housemates, said Sartz provided a welcome presence.

"With all these girls there is so much drama," said Yerushalmi, a senior from Nevada. "With Dallas, it's like having another big brother. If you're carrying something, he's always saying, 'Let me help you out with that.' If he hears you coughing in the hall, he'll ask, 'Are you OK?' "

According to Killian, a junior, Sartz helped in other protective ways.

"Before the girls go out at night he's the house fashion consultant," Killian said. "He makes sure their dresses aren't too short."

With only a few days remaining in his USC career, Sartz is taking stock of all his experiences over the last five years. He has earned a degree in communications, played on two national championship teams and helped the Trojans win an unprecedented five consecutive Pacific 10 Conference championships.

"It's been a great run," Sartz said. "I couldn't be happier with my decision to come here. To be able to play with such tremendous teams, and for the coaches we've had and in the games we've played, I feel real fortunate to have been a part of this."

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