LINCOLN, Neb. -- Growing up in Louisiana, John David Booty attended some of the Southeastern Conference’s most heated rivalry games.
Last season, he made his debut as USC’s starting quarterback before a hostile Arkansas crowd.
But those scenarios could pale in comparison with what potentially awaits Booty and his teammates tonight at Memorial Stadium when the top-ranked Trojans play No. 14 Nebraska.
USC is the first team ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll to visit Lincoln since 1978, when the Cornhuskers upset Oklahoma. And though Midwesterners are noted for their hospitality, Husker Nation is congregating again for an NCAA-record 284th consecutive home sellout to help will an upset.
“I know it’s going to be crazy,” Booty said. “They’re bringing the whole state out, but that’s the way it should be. I’m looking forward to getting into that environment.”
For Nebraska (2-0), the matchup against the Trojans offers the ultimate “statement” opportunity, a chance for Coach Bill Callahan and the Cornhuskers to announce that their football program again belongs among the nation’s elite.
USC (1-0), picked by most prognosticators to reach the Bowl Championship Series title game, also will be playing to perception after an open date last week. While the Trojans had a week off after a convincing but less than dominant victory over Idaho, No. 2 Louisiana State and other teams, such as Oklahoma, won impressively.
USC Coach Pete Carroll, however, dismissed the concept of playing for style points and poll position.
“I could care less,” he said. “You just have to win games.”
That was not the attitude Callahan seemingly adopted last season when the Cornhuskers visited the Coliseum.
Nebraska went into the game averaging 541 yards a game. But the Cornhuskers took no chances, passing only 17 times in a 28-10 defeat, and Callahan ran off the field apparently content with not having been blown out.
Callahan, who recently received a raise and a contract extension, sounded this week as if his game plan would be different tonight.
“I don’t think you will see the same kind of attack,” he said. “We have grown a little away from that style of football. We are going to be in a situation where we are going to have a little more versatility in our attack than we did a year ago.”
Nebraska’s West Coast offense features running back Marlon Lucky and quarterback Sam Keller, who helped lead the Cornhuskers to victories over Nevada and Wake Forest.
Lucky, from North Hollywood High, rushed for a career-high 233 yards in 30 carries against Nevada. Keller, a transfer from Arizona State, has completed passes to 14 receivers.
“We know they can go after you in the running game if they want to or they can spread it out, so we’ll have to wait and see what their design is for this game plan and see if we can adjust,” Carroll said.
Keller played well in the first half against the Trojans two years ago when he helped Arizona State forge a 21-3 halftime lead at Tempe, Ariz. In the second half, however, Keller forced passes, experienced some bad luck and finished with five interceptions in a 38-28 defeat.
USC defensive players said that having faced Keller would not give them an advantage.
“Different program, different scheme,” cornerback Terrell Thomas said. “He’s not the same guy he was at Arizona State. We’re just taking him as a good quarterback in an NFL pro-style offense.”
Booty leads a USC offense that showed flashes of promise but also sputtered at times in a 38-10 victory over Idaho two weeks ago.
The Trojans will be buoyed by the return of several key players who missed the opener because of injuries. Receiver Patrick Turner provides Booty with an experienced target and tailback Chauncey Washington strengthens the tailback rotation.
The Trojans will face a Nebraska defense that lost standout ends Adam Carriker and Jay Moore from last season, but has bolstered its secondary, especially at cornerback.
“If you’re not on your game, they’ll make you look stupid,” Booty said.
A crowd of more than 85,000 is expected to try to force the Trojans into mistakes at a stadium where the Cornhuskers are 24-2 in night games.
Carroll acknowledged that the environment would challenge his younger players, who played before more than 90,000 in the opener at the Coliseum.
“It’s different when they’re yelling at you instead of for you,” he said.