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Trojans offense thrives with Sarkisian at wheel

Not so long ago -- two months ago, to be exact -- Steve Sarkisian was a whipping boy for USC fans who claimed their offensive coordinator was steering their beloved Trojans straight into the gutter.

That unforgettable smackdown at the hands of those pencil-necked nerds from Stanford? Sarkisian’s fault.

That back-breaking loss to Oregon? Sarkisian’s fault.

The fact that the Trojans offense, expected to be a smooth-running Maserati, wasn’t firing on all cylinders, even as the team was on its way to 11 wins? Blame Sarkisian.

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It took a while, longer than some impossibly spoiled fans would have liked, but as the season wound down and finished with a Pasadena flourish, the Trojans forged a clear offensive identity, a look we can expect to see from USC again next season.

Gone, maybe for good, are the days of hair-raising fireworks and quick-strike touchdowns. No more Leinart and Bush, Williams and Chow.

Under Sarkisian, in his first year running solo as offensive coordinator, things were different -- but in the end, no less effective. This year’s Rose Bowl, a 49-17 Trojans victory over Illinois, told the story. The offense was masterful. Steady and sharp, controlled and balanced. It gave the Trojans defense time to sit on the sidelines and breathe. It had just the right amount of hard-hat toughness, just the right amount of Hollywood flair.

“Everything Sarkisian said would happen,” tackle Sam Baker told me after the game, “is exactly what happened . . . the guy drew up a perfect game.”

I spoke to the 33-year-old coach over the phone Wednesday morning. He was still at the team hotel room, a bit groggy farom a night spent basking in the moment with the team and his family. He picked up the sheet of plays he used for the game, read it and reminisced. The grogginess was gone.

“First play, we had an empty backfield,” he said. “It was a screen to Joe [McKnight] and it didn’t work out the way we wanted. There was no gain, but it was important because what we did with that one play started us out on the road for the whole game. It set a tone.”

Sarkisian explained that he went into the game certain the Trojans could exploit the core of the Illinois defense, particularly its linebackers and safeties. The plan was to stretch the Illini by using offensive formations that drew the defense away from the center, then to attack the middle of the field with the steadiness of a metronome.

That’s exactly what happened in USC’s first drive. Following the pass to McKnight came a long pass, a run up the gut, a pass up the gut, then another.

Sarkisian could feel the hair rise on the back of his neck.

“The sideline, it was just amazing,” he remembered. “The guys were really aggressive and really emotional. For whatever reason our guys were as hyped up as they have been all year. They were electric on the sideline . . . I could feel something special was going to happen.”

It didn’t take long. A little more than two minutes into that drive, with the sun dripping against the green field and the boys from the Midwest still hopeful, John David Booty dropped back to pass and lofted an eight-yard strike to Chauncey Washington.

USC 7, Illinois 0.

A clinic.

“We ended up scoring that touchdown and we did everything we wanted to do,” Sarkisian said. “We got a point across to our players: that we were going to spread the field and be aggressive. And we got across to their team that we were going to play a spread-out, wide-open game.”

Four minutes later, on the first play after an Illini turnover, Sarkisian called the play that drove the point home for good.

From the Illinois 34, Booty threw a backward pass to a Trojans sophomore hardly anyone knew existed until this game. Garrett Green is his name and he looked across the field and launched a long parabola to Desmond Reed, right on the money. Reed scooted toward the end zone and did a flip once he got there.

USC 14, Illinois 0.

A drubbing.

“Right there, another message to our kids,” Sarkisian said. “We get the first shot and call that play and Desmond does his flip. We were saying, ‘This is going to be a fun night tonight. The play calls are going to be fun. We are going to have a blast.’ ”

Across the field, of course, the white-clad Illini players knew that this was going to be anything but a blast. This was going to be long, and painful. Other than a few brief moments, they limped through the entire game in a daze. They showed they could run a bit, but they just couldn’t throw a spiral or catch a pass or hold onto it if they did.

Meantime, Sarkisian had a full quiver of arrows to work with. When his offense bogged down in the second quarter he called his players together and spoke loudly. “We are going to run it and run it and run it,” he told them.

The following drive would be a test of wills.

Sorry Illini fans, even Dick Butkus would not have helped.

Five plays out of six, the Trojans ran the ball. When it was over they led, 21-0.

“An attitude drive,” Sarkisian called it. “This offense, we want to be able to run the ball and throw the ball well.”

The game moved on and Sarkisian soaked it in. He’s as focused as they come, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t hear the booing that poured down from the Coliseum faithful this season when his offense sputtered.

Tuesday night was a tonic. All game long, on the sideline, his players danced, hands held out, bouncing on one leg, then the other. Maybe they were a bit too emotional at times -- there were those penalties for excessive celebration. But then again, Sarkisian reminded me, these are college kids. Let them have their fun. There will be plenty of time for button-down practicality as the years pass.

It didn’t hurt that the Trojans had luck, too.

“Thing is, all year it seemed like we weren’t getting the bounces,” he said. He conjured up the third quarter, with Illinois trying one last time to make a game of it. A backward pass caromed off of McKnight’s hands and onto the turf, a fumble. Early this season, that ball would have skipped out of bounds or been picked up by a straight-A engineering student who lives in a dorm room in Palo Alto. This time, McKnight snatched it up and made like a jellyfish. Nobody could lay a hand on him for 65 yards.

“After that run by Joe McKnight,” said Sarkisian, “we just kind of got going again.”

Did they ever.

Following McKnight’s madcap dash it took four plays for the Trojans to score another touchdown and lead by 18. It took roughly 20 minutes more for the clock to strike zero, the Trojans’ ahead by 32, their offense still in high gear, a yard from another touchdown.

So much for Sarkisian driving the Trojans into the gutter.

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Kurt Streeter can be reached at kurt.streeter@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Streeter, go to latimes.com/streeter.


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