Trojans make a bold statement in the heartland
LINCOLN, Neb. -- They came to the heartland to rediscover their heart, to reclaim their land.
Today, the amber waves of grain cracked and stuck to the bottom of their cleats, there is no doubt about either.
“We showed everyone that we still play Trojan football,” defensive end Kyle Moore said. “We showed everyone that we are going to continue to play like No. 1.”
Moore stood on a chilly field an hour before midnight Saturday, a new season having finally dawned in USC’s second game, a 49-31 flattening of 14th-ranked Nebraska.
Moore stood surrounded by the screams of red-clad fans and the honks of a red-tinged marching band. There was red on the giant logo under his feet. There was red covering the end zones.
There was red everywhere, it seemed, except on Moore, who had but a few flecks on his white shoulder pads, as if chipped off a bike that had just been steam-rolled by a truck.
“We did what Trojans do,” Moore said.
After a passionless opening victory against Idaho, some folks wondered.
In the ensuing two weeks, with Oklahoma and Louisiana State and Florida winning big while the Trojans watched, that wonder increased.
USC showed up here Saturday needing to show that, after all the summer hype, the most talented team in the country deserved to start this season ranked as its best.
Their first possession started on their four-yard line. Four plays later, they were in the end zone.
Yeah, the far end zone, a 95-yard drive that featured runs of 50 and 40 yards through holes 100 miles wide.
“It was pretty cool,” tackle Sam Baker said.
After reckless penalties led to a 10-7 deficit, they scored the next 35 points to take a 42-10 lead .
Those five touchdowns were scored by four players, followed two forced turnovers and occurred during a span in which the defense was holding Nebraska, in five possessions, to 87 yards.
“Yeah,” Baker said. “I guess it was sort of a statement.”
It is a statement that surely will be heard this week in places like Norman and Gainesville and Baton Rouge.
Somebody else No. 1?
Who else could come into the home of a Big 12 bulldozer and out-rush Nebraska, 313-31?
That’s right, the entire Cornhusker running attack accounted for less yards than those two first-possession runs by Stanley Havili (50) and C.J. Gable (40).
The Trojans knew their running game couldn’t be stopped when, at the beginning of a drive in the second quarter with Nebraska leading by three points, Coach Pete Carroll told the offense that it would run the ball every play.
Five plays later and 45 yards and countless Nebraska bruises later, they were in the end zone.
“We knew we had a chance to do that from that point on,” Carroll said. “I was very, very pleased with that.”
On the other side, they were very, very sore.
“This is beyond disappointing,” linebacker Bo Ruud said after he finally peeled himself off the cold grass. “We were terrible.”
Somebody should be ranked higher?
Who else is deep enough to win a game in the home of a ranked opponent in which six running backs carry the ball, 10 people catch a pass, and second-stringers play much of the fourth quarter?
First, Oklahoma and Florida have not even played a road game, and Louisiana State has played only Mississippi State on the road.
Second, those teams are fast, but after watching USC on Saturday, can any of them be faster?
Watching Nebraska chase the Trojans was like watching a combine chase a Corvette. The entire Cornhusker defense was outrun on the Trojans’ first play by Havili, and he’s supposed to be their blocking running back.
“The holes were so big, there was so much room, I felt like a kid in a candy store,” running back Stafon Johnson said.
Early in the game, the scoreboard showed one of Nebraska’s famous fans as he sat in his luxury suite, the comedian Larry the Cable Guy.
But soon, the Cornhuskers played like he dresses.
“They had a lot of hype,” defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis said. “We just came out and played.”
Early in the game, the fans were so loud the Trojans couldn’t hear anything but their breathing.
Said Moore: “It was the bomb.”
But soon, the only sounds were the anguished cries of the beaten home team, with Nebraska picking up a penalty for picking a fight as early as the third quarter.
Said Ellis: “I had a lot of fun.”
The fun part was, by finally being themselves, the Trojans learned lots about themselves.
Their main running back? It must be Johnson, last year’s doghouse resident who continued his emergence with 144 yards in 11 carries and a touchdown.
Their new defensive force? Looks like Moore, the giant defensive end who dropped back in coverage and fooled quarterback Sam Keller into throwing him the ball for one of the interceptions.
USC is so fast, even Moore outran some Cornhuskers before finally being dragged down after a 24-yard return to the one-yard line.
“That’s the only bad thing,” Moore said. “I should have scored.”
Well, there were a couple of other bad things.
The Trojans still don’t have a main deep threat for quarterback John David Booty. In Patrick Turner’s first action of the season, he dropped passes and fumbled and generally struggled to find his rhythm.
David Ausberry, with three catches for 35 yards, might be Booty’s safety valve, much like Mike Williams once was, but the Trojans’ passing game needs help.
So does the Trojans’ discipline, as they committed 10 penalties for 102 yards, several of them on wild, unnecessary plays.
But, in all, it was a night when America’s much-envied Hollywood hotshots came to hostile middle America and left with their bellies full.
This land was their land.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.