In the heat of USC, UCLA scrimmages, he's seeing things: wine bottles, ghosts and potential

Erskine also writes the "Man of the House" column in Saturday's Home section.

No, you're not coming down with swine flu. That's football you're feeling. It's really much worse. Swine flu either goes away or does you in. Football fever can dog you for life. Like knobby knees or a nervous throat.

The only treatment for a football fever is to deal with it head on. So I waddled over to USC the other day, where they were having one of those torturous August scrimmages that football insists upon. After a couple of hours of close study, here's my prediction:

USC will win the national title, then go on to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLXVIIY^%$$##.5, or whichever incarnation it is this season, down in Miami, I believe.

But USC it is. If I were a Vegas bookie -- and that would surely be a step up -- I'd make them a 3-1 shot. At the scrimmage the other day, here's what I saw:

Their offensive linemen are built like gigantic wine bottles. The Trojans also have half a dozen leggy running backs -- grasshoppers, really -- who can leap tall buildings in a single down.

The linebackers are carved from quarry stone and all seem to have the appropriate anger-management issues. This year's bunch, with more range than ever, were playing a little more in control. They will run through a wall for Coach Pete Carroll, then spit out brick dust, the opposing fullback and maybe a mascot or two.

Lord help the poor tailback who somehow makes it all the way to safety Taylor Mays, a Superman among boys, who pummels opponents as if they were pinatas.

At USC, they say there might be a quarterback controversy. Honestly, you only have a quarterback controversy when one kid can barely play and another kid is a little worse, leaving the coach to decide which of these two losers should be starting. Traditionally, the coach chooses the player the fans like least, which is where all the fun begins.

For coaches, quarterback controversies are like having radioactive waste oozing from their ears.

In Carroll's case, he seems to have two guys, maybe three, all of whom could lead an invasion of Cuba.

At USC, the fans sense this embarrassment of riches. Boosters arrive for the scrimmage -- some by limo, seriously -- sweat in the sun for 90 minutes before retiring across the street for a picnic/pep rally complete with cheerleaders, tubas and that albino horse of theirs. No kidding, Traveler looked as if he had been dipped in ranch dressing for the evening. I'm pretty sure several of the older, blinder alums tried to eat him.

So all is well in the land of Troy, where their favorite color is blood.

See you at the Super Bowl.

Across town, meanwhile, UCLA is having its big fall scrimmage, two hours later, in the cool shadows of Drake Stadium. The good-looking Bruins fans all look like extras for "Gossip Girl." California, I swear. . . .

Anyway, the UCLA scrimmage is more wide open, partly due to some arm tackling on defense, partly due to the squirrel rifle that resides atop the shoulder of Kevin Prince. Quarterbacks are royalty in football, and Coach Rick Neuheisel has finally found Alfred the Great. That kid Nick Crissman looked pretty good too.

Wow, can this team fly. Tailback Johnathan Franklin rips off a 60-yard run, then Damien Thigpen returns a punt 70 yards. Or was it a kickoff? By gawd, it was both.

Trying to tackle Thigpen is like trying to tackle ghosts. What a thing to do to your defense on the 15th day of a grueling camp. A couple of the linebackers looked as if they were practicing breathing exercises from Lamaze.

UCLA doesn't start classes till, what, Halloween? The Bruins schedule isn't exactly full of puff pastries, but neither does it seem stacked against them. Were I a student, I might be tempted to come back early, for this is an explosive team. Games will resemble sprint-car races, and if that scary-young offensive line can protect Prince's blind side, there's no telling what kind of damage the Bruins will do to Cal.

After the scrimmage is over, Neuheisel grabs the microphone the way he used to throttle quarterbacks. He still has that John Denver face, round as a dinner plate and full of sun -- the happy mug of someone who eeks out a living in the great outdoors.

"With your help, we're going to get there sooner rather than later," he tells the crowd.

At UCLA, sooner could be sooner than you think.


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