CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Bring on the Buckeyes.
USC coaches and players spent the entire off-season and training camp deflecting questions about their Sept. 13 game against Ohio State.
Their focus, they insisted, was on Saturday’s opener against Virginia.
After traveling to the land of Thomas Jefferson, the third-ranked Trojans made a declaration that they are prepared for the second-ranked Buckeyes, and possibly more, by routing the Cavaliers, 52-7.
“Everything happened just right,” Coach Pete Carroll said. “Too bad we let them score.”
USC still has some areas to address before Ohio State and its scarlet-and-gray-clad legions descend upon the Coliseum in two weeks.
But Saturday’s impressive display in front of a national television audience and stadium-record crowd of 64,947 offered Carroll plenty of reasons for optimism.
Quarterback Mark Sanchez erased any doubt that he had recovered from a knee injury, passing for three touchdowns and leading an offense that looked equally formidable on the ground and through the air. The defense, save for a couple of penalties, was as good as advertised, causing four turnovers.
Former USC running back LenDale White watched the Trojans manhandle the Cavaliers in a style that was similar to the national championship teams he played on in 2003 and 2004 and the high-flying 2005 team that reached the Bowl Championship Series title game.
“Bring on O-S-Who,” he said.
USC players were more respectful, but they seemed relieved to finally turn their attention to a showdown that will jump-start the winner’s drive to a possible championship-game appearance.
“The Coliseum is going to be rocking,” Sanchez said while cradling a cellphone jammed with 68 congratulatory text messages.
Three weeks removed from a dislocated left kneecap, Sanchez more than answered the call against the Cavaliers. The fourth-year junior, clearly benefiting from the confidence and experience gained in three midseason starts in 2007, passed for a career-best 338 yards.
Sanchez, who completed 26 of 35 passes with one interception, dissected the Cavaliers with short, medium and long-range passes, keeping multiple plays alive by scrambling out of the pocket. His 10-yard touchdown pass to running back Joe McKnight in the first quarter and his 20-yard scoring strike to receiver Patrick Turner early in the second half set the stage for the reintroduction of the deep pass, a missing element in the Trojans’ offense for most of the previous two seasons.
Sanchez’s 49-yard third-quarter bomb to receiver Ronald Johnson gave the Trojans a 38-7 lead.
But it was Sanchez’s moxie -- he threw an open-field block on a McKnight cutback run -- that drew raves.
“Mark brings energy,” tailback Allen Bradford said.
So did Bradford, one of five tailbacks who scored touchdowns while amassing 218 team rushing yards.
By design, or perhaps luck, Bradford, C.J. Gable and Stafon Johnson all finished with nine carries. McKnight got six carries and caught four passes.
“Everybody got a chance to show what they can do, so we can keep it rolling,” said Gable, who started the opener for the third year in a row and scored on a 33-yard, fourth-down run.
Most of the postgame talk in USC’s locker room centered on the offensive line, which went into the game as the Trojans’ biggest question mark. The unit, which features four new starters, did not yield a sack and paved the way for 558 yards of offense.
“We have huge shoes to fill, there’s no question about that,” senior guard Jeff Byers said. “We’ve still got work to do, but it’s exciting to see these young guys and the offensive line pick it up.”
A receivers corps that fell short of USC’s recent standard last season also stepped up, Arkansas transfer Damian Williams leading the way with seven receptions.
“We’re much different than where we were last year at this time,” Carroll said of the receivers.
The Trojans as a whole looked pretty much as expected to Virginia Coach Al Groh, who watched his team fall behind 21-0 in the first quarter.
“We wanted to take a challenge against a team that is in a league of its own,” Groh said. “We knew it was going to take a lot on our part to pull this off.
“To play as poorly as we played is not acceptable.”
USC played well but still has some cleaning up to do before Ohio State arrives.
The Trojans were penalized seven times, McKnight fumbled a punt and several Sanchez passes were tipped or batted down.
But the Trojans mostly liked what they saw in their performance and intend to improve upon it over the next two weeks.
“More than making an impression for Ohio State, " safety Taylor Mays said, “we made an impression for ourselves.”