Trojans playing role of the heavy
USC coaches and players refuse to acknowledge it.
The record of the opponent, the gargantuan point spread and upcoming games against other struggling teams draw nary a reaction from the second-ranked Trojans.
But today’s Pacific 10 Conference game against Stanford is the start of a three-game stretch that should allow USC to regain its form, nurse some key players back to health and audition others for what figures to be a difficult five-game finish.
The unbeaten Trojans are coming off a sloppy three-point victory over Washington and will be without two of their three leading rushers, two starting offensive linemen and possibly a starting cornerback today at the Coliseum.
And yet they are a near-six-touchdown favorite over Stanford.
USC plays Arizona next week and is at winless Notre Dame after that before playing three of its last five games on the road at once-beaten Oregon, unbeaten California and unbeaten Arizona State.
The Trojans (4-0, 2-0 in Pac-10) say they are focused on the immediate task at hand: defeating a Stanford team that is coming off a 38-point loss at Arizona State.
Cleaning up the mistakes that plagued them last week in Seattle also is on the Trojans’ to-do list.
“Hopefully, we can play to our standards,” senior cornerback Terrell Thomas said. “Maybe get a good lead and get some young guys in. . . . But other than that, it’s just a game. [Stanford is] a college team just like us, looking to win.”
Stanford was the last team to defeat USC at the Coliseum, but that was in 2001 when Tyrone Willingham was the Cardinal coach and Pete Carroll was in his first season with the Trojans.
Since then, USC has won 35 consecutive home games and Stanford is on its third head coach since Willingham left.
Former NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh is trying to accomplish what coaches Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris were unable to: turn Stanford into a team capable of competing for a bowl bid and possibly more.
Harbaugh irked Carroll during the off-season when he said this would be Carroll’s last season with the Trojans. He also has stood by his preseason proclamation that USC is among the greatest teams -- if not the greatest -- in college football history.
And that was after he watched tape of USC committing 16 penalties for 161 yards in a 27-24 win over Washington.
Carroll says he does not expect a repeat performance.
“If we’re slopping around, then we’ve got problems, but I don’t anticipate seeing that,” Carroll said.
Quarterback John David Booty said this week that he had put the performance behind. He will work against a Stanford defense that is giving up 454 yards a game.
Senior center Matt Spanos, who suffered a torn triceps in training camp, will make his first career start after being pressed into service against Washington after Kris O’Dowd and guard Chilo Rachal suffered knee injuries on the same play. Senior Alatini Malu or redshirt freshman Zack Heberer will start in Rachal’s place.
Tailback Stafon Johnson, who leads the Trojans with 378 rushing yards, is not expected to play because of a bruised foot and C.J. Gable underwent season-ending abdominal surgery Friday.
Senior Chauncey Washington will make his third consecutive start at tailback and will share the load with freshman Joe McKnight, sophomore Allen Bradford and seniors Hershel Dennis and Desmond Reed.
McKnight, in particular, is expected to get significant opportunities.
Stanford (1-3, 0-3) will try to prove it can be competitive despite the absence of quarterback T.C. Ostrander, who is being held out after suffering a seizure last Sunday. Ostrander was sacked seven times against Arizona State.
Sophomore Tavita Pritchard will start at quarterback for an offense that includes experienced receivers in seniors Evan Moore and Mark Bradford and sophomore Richard Sherman.
USC defensive end Lawrence Jackson says it does not matter that Stanford or any other opponent might be struggling or undermanned.
“We just want to go out and show we play for excellence every time,” he said.