Turnaround in trenches

Times Staff Writer

No one outright questioned the manhood of the big guys who play along the USC offensive and defensive lines.

No one had to.

All week long, the guards and tackles and ends chewed over memories of walking off the field after being pushed around in an upset loss at Oregon State.

“It’s a sickness you get in your gut,” offensive guard Jeff Byers said. “It’s the worst thing.”


Saturday night was a different feeling altogether. At the heart of No. 9 USC’s 44-10 victory over No. 23 Oregon was a concrete toughness at the line of scrimmage.

Consider the numbers.

The USC defense held Oregon, the top rushing team in the Pacific-10 Conference, to a meek 60 yards on the ground.

Or about 250 yards below the Ducks’ average coming into the game.

The Trojans’ offensive line paved the way for 155 rushing yards and, notwithstanding a particularly scary sack to quarterback Mark Sanchez, allowed passers enough time to throw for 443 yards and four touchdowns.

A big difference from that night in Corvallis.

“I thought all along that they were a talented football team,” Oregon Coach Mike Bellotti said. “I think SC answered their wake-up call.”

The turnaround began last week, during practices beset by unseasonably warm weather.

“It was hot,” defensive end Kyle Moore said. “And we worked hard.”

Coach Pete Carroll came away from the Oregon State loss believing that his linemen -- and the rest of the team -- had not handled the victory over Ohio State very well.

“We just weren’t right,” Carroll said of the Oregon State loss. “I’ll be forever frustrated by it.”

The antidote was simple: practice and more practice. The offensive linemen, in particular, focused on technique, staying low.

“We knew what we’d done wrong,” center Kristofer O’Dowd said. “We really worked on our hands.”

By Carroll’s way of thinking, Oregon offered a considerable test. That powerful running game. A defensive line anchored by interior linemen each about 300 pounds.

Surely the Trojans conjured some schematic changes to open up the run game, adjustments that Carroll did not care to discuss afterward.

But, just as much, their victory was a testament to effort.

“I just think that sometimes you can talk about being good, but you still have to go out there and play,” Byers said.

Not that USC dominated the whole way.

Oregon sprinted to a 10-3 lead with a bruising first possession and just enough defense to keep USC off-track.

The turnaround came in the second quarter when Sanchez began connecting on one long pass after another. The Trojans exploded for 24 points.

A decisive moment came when Oregon fumbled and USC was able to add seven more points with 16 seconds remaining before halftime.

“We knew we had them,” O’Dowd said.

The good feelings continued into the second half as the USC running game gained momentum. Tailback Stafon Johnson broke loose for a 22-yard score. C.J. Gable and Joe McKnight contributed too.

And, after that first quarter, Oregon’s run game pretty much went nowhere.

All of which added up to a good feeling for the Trojans in the trenches. “It was all smiles,” Byers said.

A big difference from last week.