A USC haymaker
LINCOLN, Neb. -- USC players and coaches insisted throughout the week that it was not about perception.
It was not about style points.
The top-ranked Trojans said they came to one of college football’s most hallowed stadiums Saturday night just looking for a victory against a ranked opponent.
Utilizing a punishing rushing attack that produced 313 yards rushing and a suddenly opportunistic defense, the Trojans got that and more, rolling over No. 14 Nebraska, 49-31, before 84,959 in a game that was not as close as the score indicated.
On a chilly and breezy night, USC took the sea-of-red crowd out of the game by putting the ball in the hands of tailbacks Stafon Johnson, C.J. Gable and Chauncey Washington and fullback Stanley Havili. The backfield quartet dashed and darted through holes seemingly as wide as the giant “N” on the Memorial Stadium turf.
Meanwhile, the Trojans limited the Cornhuskers to 31 yards rushing and intercepted two third-quarter passes that led to touchdowns, turning an 11-point halftime lead into a 32-point margin going into the fourth quarter.
“We owned the line of scrimmage and that was huge for us,” said USC Coach Pete Carroll, who celebrated his 56th birthday. “To do that here and to be able to capture the momentum of the stadium and all of that early on and then in the third quarter come ripping out there with a couple turnovers and away it goes -- it’s a beautiful thing.”
USC’s status as the nation’s best team was doubted by some after No. 2 Louisiana State, Oklahoma and Florida impressed last week while the Trojans had an open date after a less-than-stirring 38-10 season-opening victory over Idaho.
But USC (2-0) answered with an impressive performance.
“It was a great challenge, the first road game of the season,” said junior defensive end Kyle Moore, who tipped a pass that led to an interception by Terrell Thomas and later intercepted a pass himself. “If we continue to keep doing that through the season we should be in New Orleans” for the Bowl Championship Series title game.
The Trojans showed Saturday that they could win big without a huge performance from quarterback John David Booty.
The senior completed 19 of 30 passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns, but was victimized by several dropped passes.
It did not matter on a night when USC amassed its highest rushing total since Reggie Bush and LenDale White helped the Trojans roll up 430 yards against UCLA in 2005.
All-American offensive tackle Sam Baker said the victory stirred memories to two years ago.
“Rushing the ball back in 2005, we used to get in a groove like that where everyone was on the same page and were moving, that’s what it kind of reminded me of,” he said.
Johnson, a sophomore, led the way with a career-best 144 yards in 11 carries. Johnson credited the offensive line for the huge holes.
“My eyes got big every time,” said Johnson, who carried five times for 60 yards during a 73-yard, nine-play second-quarter drive that he finished with a seven-yard touchdown run.
Havili, also a sophomore, set the tone when he broke off a career-best 50-yard run on the Trojans’ first offensive play. Gable, another sophomore, immediately followed with a career-long 40-yard run to help set up a short touchdown pass from Booty to Havili.
“I think we made a statement that every one of our backs can run the ball,” Havili said. “Everyone has the capability of making a big play.”
Gable finished with 69 yards in four carries, Havili added 52 yards and a touchdown and also caught three passes, including one for a touchdown. Washington, a senior, returned from a shoulder sprain to gain 43 yards in 12 carries.
“We knew they had a stable of running backs and a solid offensive line coming back,” Nebraska Coach Bill Callahan said.
Nebraska (2-1) was hoping to make its own statement in its first home game against a No. 1-ranked team since 1978.
Callahan delivered on his hint that Nebraska would open up its offense and not repeat the plodding, conservative game plan that he employed in last season’s 28-10 loss to USC at the Coliseum.
But the Cornhuskers could not move USC’s defensive front and quarterback Sam Keller once again hurt himself with second-half interceptions against the Trojans.
Two years ago, Keller guided Arizona State to a 21-3 halftime lead over USC, but the Trojans came back for a 38-28 victory as Keller finished with five interceptions.
On Saturday, USC led, 21-10, at the break before Thomas and Moore intercepted passes on consecutive possessions to set up a short touchdown pass from Booty to tight end Anthony McCoy and a one-yard scoring run by Washington.
USC limited Nebraska running back Marlon Lucky to 33 yards in 17 carries.
Carroll said he was thrilled with the victory and said his team would build upon it the rest of the season. The Trojans play road games at Washington, Notre Dame, Oregon, California and Arizona State.
“When we go on the road again, they know now what it’s like and there won’t be any problem preparing them for crowd noise and environment no matter how rough and tough it gets,” Carroll said.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Gary Klein’s keys to the game and how USC measured up:
1. Leadership. John David Booty managed the game efficiently despite several dropped passes by receivers. He passed for 144 yards and two touchdowns without an interception and was not sacked. Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller was 36 for 54 for 389 yards with two touchdowns and two third-quarter interceptions. He was sacked twice.
2. In a rush. Sophomore Stafon Johnson averaged 13.1 yards a carry and scored a touchdown as the Trojans rolled up 313 yards. Fullback Stanley Havili and tailback C.J. Gable set the tone with 50- and 40-yard runs, respectively, on the Trojans’ first two plays. USC held Nebraska running back Marlon Lucky to 33 yards in 17 carries.
3. Turnovers. Cornerback Terrell Thomas and defensive end Kyle Moore intercepted passes on the first two Nebraska possessions of the second half. Both led to touchdowns. USC fumbled five times, but lost only one.