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Trojans’ defense thinking safety first

Times Staff Writer

Kevin Ellison has a long memory, especially when it comes to long passes.

Though USC’s junior safety was still in high school, a year from playing for the Trojans, he vividly recalls the longest touchdown pass by an opponent since Pete Carroll has been USC coach.

“BYU, 2004, Watkins,” Ellison said, referring to a 69-yard scoring play from quarterback John Beck to receiver Todd Watkins at Provo, Utah.

Ellison also correctly remembered that cornerback Ronald Nunn was covering Watkins on the play. And, perhaps more telling, that Nunn was out of the lineup the next week.

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Such is life in the USC secondary under Carroll, who waxes long and passionately about preventing the big play.

“The whole philosophy of playing defense starts there,” Carroll said. “You can’t let people score from a long distance.

“They have been told they are protecting the president of the university and USC by taking away the long touchdown pass.”

The strategy has proved effective: USC has won two national titles and five consecutive Pacific 10 Conference titles under Carroll.

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The bend-but-don’t-break scheme will be put to the test today when the top-ranked Trojans begin conference play against Washington State at the Coliseum. USC has won 34 consecutive home games.

The Cougars (2-1) are led by quarterback Alex Brink, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound fifth-year senior who has passed for 947 yards and 10 touchdowns with two interceptions this season. Culver City High alumnus Michael Bumpus and Brandon Gibson are Brink’s favorite targets.

“He has total command of our offense,” Washington State Coach Bill Doba said of Brink. “I promise you he knows more about our offense than I do.”

USC surrendered 159 yards passing in its opener against Idaho and 389 last week against Nebraska.

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The yardage totals have led to suggestions that the secondary is a weakness in an otherwise stout defense.

“It’s kind of irritating when people think that,” junior cornerback Cary Harris said. “But then you watch SportsCenter and see other teams giving up 50- and 60-yard touchdown passes it doesn’t look so bad. We’re big on keeping everything in front of us.”

Cornerback Terrell Thomas acknowledged that the philosophy is sometimes tough on the ego. “As much as it makes someone maybe look bad at times, it’s the system,” he said. “It’s the bigger picture. It’s about winning games.”

USC defeated Washington State last year, 28-22, securing the victory at Pullman, Wash., with a last-second interception by safety Taylor Mays.

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Brink completed 26 of 46 passes for 287 yards and two touchdowns and Bumpus caught a career-high 11 passes for 112 yards.

However, the receiving star in that game was USC flanker Steve Smith, who caught 11 passes from quarterback John David Booty, several in clutch third-down situations.

Booty is still searching for a go-to receiver this season, with Smith and split end Dwayne Jarrett having departed to the NFL.

Trojans receivers played fairly well against Idaho, but most struggled against Nebraska. Some mightily.

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Junior Patrick Turner, the Trojans’ most experienced receiver, dropped three passes against the Cornhuskers and also fumbled. Freshman Vidal Hazelton caught only one pass for two yards. David Ausberry had three receptions for 35 yards.

“They’re going to be fine,” said Booty, who has passed for 350 yards and five touchdowns with one interception.

If USC continues to run the ball as it did against Nebraska, it might not matter. The Trojans gained 313 yards and ran for five touchdowns. Sophomore Stafon Johnson led the way with 144 yards and sophomore C.J. Gable averaged 17 yards a carry.

Nevertheless, senior Chauncey Washington will start at tailback against the Cougars.

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Washington State’s top running back is sophomore Dwight Tardy, who played at Santa Fe Springs St. Paul High and averages 101 rushing yards a game.

But the Trojans are focused on controlling Brink and his receivers and keeping them out of the end zone.

Ellison pointed to the Nebraska game. Quarterback Sam Keller’s passes moved the chains at times, but Nebraska scored only one touchdown in the first three quarters.

“Sometimes the yards don’t tell the truth,” Ellison said. “The score of the Nebraska game was 42-10 at one point. We’re not playing for stats, we’re playing to win.”

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gary.klein@latimes.com


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