Home is where start is for USC
Much has changed in the five years since USC played a season opener at the Coliseum.
No one would have predicted the success the Trojans have enjoyed under Coach Pete Carroll, starting with their 2002 Labor Day victory over Auburn that drew a crowd of just over 63,000.
Two national titles, three Heisman Trophy winners and four bowl-game victories later, the USC program is regarded by many as college football’s best.
Tonight, a sellout crowd of 92,000 is expected for the top-ranked Trojans’ opener against Idaho, the first step in what many believe will be a march to the Bowl Championship Series title game at the Louisiana Superdome.
“It’s really important that we come out in our home opener full speed ahead, giving all we got as though it was our last game,” said quarterback John David Booty, a Heisman front-runner.
“We just want to get off to a great start.”
Beginning a championship march at home is a relatively foreign experience for USC under Carroll.
In the last four seasons, USC traveled to play openers at Auburn, against Virginia Tech at Landover, Md., at Hawaii and at Arkansas. The long trips to hostile environments seemed to toughen and bond Trojans teams that went on to post a cumulative 48-4 record.
Defensive end Lawrence Jackson does not expect the Trojans to be any softer for starting amid the comforts of home, where USC has won 33 consecutive games.
“When we’ve gone to other places for the first game, the stadiums were rocking and the fans were excited,” said Jackson, a fifth-year senior. “It feels good to finally have that here in our house.”
The 2002 victory over Auburn, the fourth in the Coliseum winning streak, required a fourth-quarter touchdown drive engineered by quarterback Carson Palmer.
Those kinds of heroics are not expected to be required tonight from Booty, who could follow Palmer and Matt Leinart as Heisman-winning USC quarterbacks.
The Trojans are six-touchdown favorites against Idaho.
“It’s a beautiful thing to start the season at home in front of our fans,” Carroll said.
But will it have a pretty ending?
Last season, USC fell two tipped passes short of possibly finishing the regular season unbeaten and reaching the BCS championship game for the third consecutive year.
With 10 starters returning on defense and Booty leading the offense, the Trojans could make it three out of four.
Booty passed for 3,347 yards and 29 touchdowns last season and showed in the second half of the Rose Bowl that he could shoulder the load of carrying the Trojans. Booty, however, is working with a largely untested group of receivers, a still-maturing running back corps and an injury-riddled offensive line entering the opener.
After Lane Kiffin’s departure to become coach of the Oakland Raiders, offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian will call plays from the sideline. Receivers coach John Morton will relay information from the press box.
“It’s going to be different, no doubt,” Sarkisian said. “But when you have a quarterback like John David, well, it makes things a whole lot easier.”
USC’s defense has the potential to be the best of the Carroll era. It is by far the fastest, with NFL prospects at every position. The unit’s challenge is to intercept more passes and cause more fumbles.
USC ranked 38th nationally in turnover margin last season. The Trojans never finished a season ranked lower than fifth in Carroll’s previous five seasons.
Two experiments hurt USC in 2006. The Trojans switched from a 4-3 defensive scheme to a hybrid 3-4 to get more linebackers onto the field. The NCAA also adopted clock rules that shortened games and reduced the number of plays.
Both experiments have been scrapped.
USC’s pass rush is expected to be better, creating more opportunities for takeaways.
“We can be really, really special when it’s all said and done, providing we do all of the simple stuff: tackle really well and get some turnovers,” defensive coordinator Nick Holt said.
The Trojans and Idaho can thank Holt for today’s mismatch.
Two years ago, Holt was in his second season as Idaho’s head coach. The game was made as something of a favor to the former Trojans linebackers coach.
But in the time since, Holt returned to the Trojans and his successor at Idaho, Dennis Erickson, became coach at Arizona State.
Former Washington State assistant Robb Akey moved down the road from Pullman, Wash., to Moscow, Idaho, to take over a Vandals program coming off a 4-8 season.
Of the matchup against the Trojans, Akey said, “We’re not going to take a knee.”
Carroll hopes not.
“They are looking forward to a shot at us, and it’s going to be fun for them and fun for us,” he said.
Keys to the Game
No. 1 USC (11-2, 7-2 in Pac-10 in 2006)
vs. Idaho (4-8, 3-5 in WAC)
TV: FSN West. Radio: 710
1 Protect the quarterback. Yes, we’re harkening back to the Leinart years here and with good reason. The Trojans could beat Idaho without John David Booty, but they cannot afford to have their senior leader suffer an injury. Idaho also needs to keep Nathan Enderle out of harm’s way as the redshirt freshman faces the nation’s top-ranked team in his first start.
2 Establish the run.
The Trojans must improve upon last season’s 128-yards-a-game rushing average. The offensive line needs to gain some confidence before it has to move Nebraska linemen beefed up on Omaha Steaks. It’s also a chance for a tailback to separate himself from the pack. Idaho needs to run to eat clock.
3 Send a message.
Some believe this could be the best USC defense of the Pete Carroll era. Time to prove it. How about starting by matching the feat of the 2003 Trojans, who in their opener shut out Auburn on the road, 23-0. Short of producing one of the greatest upsets in college football history, Idaho could pull a Nebraska and score perception points by keeping it reasonably close.
-- Gary Klein