USC has no speed limit

Times Staff Writer

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Quiet voices. The occasional pause. The Virginia players acted as if they had just witnessed a train wreck.

The Cavaliers -- the ones who play on offense -- were trying to describe what it felt like to face the USC defense.

Again and again, they arrived at the same conclusion.

“Their speed was pretty unbelievable,” quarterback Peter Lalich said.


Tailback Cedric Peerman agreed: “Speed everywhere.”

Forget about schemes and stunts. In the moments after third-ranked USC’s 52-7 victory Saturday afternoon, Virginia tight end John Phillips mused, “They were really fast.”

Fast enough to pounce on three fumbles and intercept a Lalich pass.

Fast enough to limit Virginia to 32 yards rushing.

“The holes closed awfully fast,” Coach Al Groh said. “Those two linebackers can really run and close space and the two safeties play like linebackers.”

Linebacker Kaluka Maiava had six tackles, as did safety Taylor Mays and Clay Matthews, who shifted between rush end and linebacker. The Trojans recorded seven tackles for losses.

Not that Virginia was particularly surprised.

Defense was clearly USC’s strength entering the fall. The Trojans returned seven starters from a unit that stood near the top of the national rankings in several categories last season.

After watching game film this summer, the Cavaliers had an idea about the aggressive schemes they might face, the blitzes and man-to-man coverage.


Figuring the Trojans would come after the sophomore Lalich -- which they surely did -- Virginia countered with the shotgun formation and quick slant routes.

“Gives him a little bit longer to look at things,” Groh said.

The strategy worked . . . some of the time. Lalich completed about half of his passes and made some sharp plays. During a first-quarter scoring drive, he threw to receiver Maurice Covington on the sideline and beat the blitz with one of those slants to Phillips.

But the bright spots were few and far between for a quarterback who ended up with 155 yards passing, for a team that converted only two of 12 third-down plays.

As the running game stuttered and the points stacked up for USC, Lalich was forced to throw often. The USC rush smelled blood, sacking him twice and spending much of the afternoon in his face.

“He had to make those [passes] without having the opportunity to get much of a look at the defense,” Groh said. “The pocket didn’t hold up very long.”

Lalich, for his part, refused to shift the blame to his linemen.

“We had a lot of open guys I should have hit,” he said.

In particular, he mentioned lofting a third-quarter pass down the middle of the field where USC defenders literally fought each other to make the interception. Cornerback Kevin Thomas came down with the ball.

“At that point I was trying to do too much . . . trying to get a big gain,” Lalich said. “I had an underneath guy open and I should have hit him.”

His words sounded a bit dazed.

A few feet away, wide receiver Jared Green also struggled to put the game in context, saying he would need to look at film.

Asked about the USC defense, he said: “I don’t know what to say about those guys . . . it was a tough game, man.”