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South Bend in the road to USC

Klein is a Times staff writer.

USC linebacker Brian Cushing envisioned the scenario.

Nearing the end of an outstanding senior season, he would play one of his final games in one of college football’s greatest intersectional rivalries. He would emerge from the Coliseum tunnel in front of more than 90,000 fans and lay it all on the line. . . .

For Notre Dame.

Occasionally, Cushing still finds it hard to believe he is a Trojan. So does his father, Frank.

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Out of high school, Cushing was all but signed, sealed and delivered to join the Fighting Irish in South Bend, Ind. But when coach Tyrone Willingham and his staff were fired, the Irish-Catholic boy from New Jersey turned his attention west.

Too far west for his father’s liking.

Four years later, though, the 6-foot-3, 255-pound Cushing is an All-American candidate for the Trojans, a top NFL prospect and a leader of one of the nation’s best defenses.

On Saturday, he and USC’s other seniors will play their final home game when the Trojans face Notre Dame in the rivalry’s 80th game.

“It’s crazy where the time went,” Cushing said last week, reflecting on his career.

Said his father last month: “It could not have worked out any better.”

While fellow senior linebacker Rey Maualuga has drawn more attention and is a finalist for several postseason awards, Cushing was the linebacker teammates voted a team captain.

While Maualuga turned in the highlight-reel play against Ohio State, returning an interception for a touchdown, Cushing was the linebacker who dominated the Buckeyes.

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And when Maualuga sat out a game because of a knee injury, Cushing was the linebacker who slid over from the strong-side spot and started in the middle.

“He’s just an old-fashioned football player that loves to play the game with all the grit and dirt and savvy,” USC Coach Pete Carroll said.

That style has not always worked in Cushing’s favor.

He played his freshman season in 2005 with a shoulder injury that required surgery. In 2007, ankle and knee injuries limited him, making the decision to return for a final season rather than turn pro a no-brainer.

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This season, playing through a wrist injury and assorted bumps and bruises, he is second behind Maualuga with 60 tackles and also has 2 1/2 sacks and four pass breakups.

“There’s only one speed with him so you’re going to take the good with the bad,” Trojans linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. said. “He’s going to knock you out and then he’s going to hurt himself trying to knock you out. That’s just kind of part of it.”

USC knew what it might be getting when running backs coach Todd McNair, a New Jersey native, began recruiting Cushing. But every college assistant on the recruiting trail thought Cushing was bound for Notre Dame.

That’s certainly what Frank Cushing was hoping after watching his son terrorize opponents while starring at Bergen Catholic High in Oradell, N.J., the same school that produced former Irish quarterback Matt LoVecchio.

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His son was enamored of Notre Dame, Willingham and his assistants.

“It just seemed like a perfect fit for me,” Cushing said.

That all changed a few days after the Trojans defeated Notre Dame in 2004. Cushing got phone calls from his cousin and then his father informing him that Willingham had been fired three years into a five-year contract.

“I was like, ‘Wow,’ ” Cushing said. “I was mad at the situation because I thought I had everything figured out. . . . I was kind of lost.”

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Frank pushed Boston College and other schools closer to home. Cushing’s brother stumped for Miami.

But Brian set up a visit to USC that would be made immediately after a high school all-star game in Texas.

Frank declined to make the trip to California -- the only recruiting visit he missed -- and sent wife Antoinette with Brian.

Just to ensure the journey started well, or at least the way he hoped, Frank booked his wife and son on an uncomfortably early morning flight.

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“I did everything I could to mess up the trip,” Frank said, chuckling.

“He just wanted me to stick close to home,” his son said. “He wasn’t being selfish, he was just being a dad who really loves watching me play and wants to be there all the time.”

McNair foiled Frank’s plan by whisking Cushing and his mother from the airport to Manhattan Beach.

“She calls me up and goes, ‘God, they showed us the Pacific Ocean!’ ” Frank recalled. “I say, ‘Wait a second. We have the Atlantic.’ ”

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But USC apparently had something no other college in the nation could boast: Carroll, who was in the process of leading the Trojans to a second consecutive national title.

“I don’t know how anyone can say no to Pete,” Frank said.

When Cushing returned to Southern California after signing with the Trojans he made an immediate impression -- and it was not a good one.

In March 2005, while visiting spring practice, Cushing punched a man at a party he attended with quarterback Mark Sanchez in Orange County. Police said no arrests were made because the alleged victim refused to file charges.

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“It was a wake-up call,” Cushing said. “I needed to change. I needed to understand this wasn’t high school anymore.”

Cushing played in the season opener at Hawaii and quickly made a mark. Playing on the kickoff team, he forced a fumble that was recovered and returned for a touchdown.

“I always thought of him as a guy who could be a playmaker and do unusual things,” Carroll said. “After that play, I remember thinking, ‘Oh, maybe there is something to this guy.’ I thought that was a sign.”

Cushing went on to start the final four games, including the Bowl Championship Series title game against Texas.

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The next season, in an effort to get as many linebackers onto the field as possible, coaches put Cushing at the rush-end “elephant” position along the line of scrimmage.

For the last two seasons, he has started at strong-side linebacker -- the side of the offense’s tight end.

Next year at this time, Cushing hopes to be playing in the NFL. Earlier this season, a scout who spoke on condition of anonymity projected Cushing as a possible first- or second-round pick.

But before he turns pro, Cushing would like to add to his highlight reel.

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Two years ago at the Coliseum, he scooped up a Notre Dame onside kick and raced 42 yards for a touchdown.

“It was one of the top plays in my career,” he said.

A career that, if not for Willingham’s firing, would have been spent at Notre Dame.

--

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gary.klein@latimes.com


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