It’s too early to book hotel rooms in Miami.
An entire Pacific 10 Conference schedule remains to be played.
But top-ranked USC’s road to a Bowl Championship Series title-game appearance became significantly clearer Saturday night after the Trojans defeated fifth-ranked Ohio State, 35-3, in front of 93,607 at the Coliseum.
Quarterback Mark Sanchez passed for four touchdowns and linebacker Rey Maualuga scored on an electrifying interception return as the Trojans dominated the Beanie-less Buckeyes in a game that kept USC on the road to a possible third BCS title-game appearance in five years.
“This is really the outcome we thought could happen,” Coach Pete Carroll said. “Tonight it didn’t matter who we were playing.”
A season-opening 52-7 rout of Virginia had vaulted USC to the top of the polls, but it was difficult to assess whether the Trojans were that good or Virginia was that bad.
USC proved it was legitimate by forcing three turnovers and rolling over a seasoned Ohio State team that had 18 starters back from a team that had reached the BCS title game two years in a row -- although one of those starters, star running back Chris “Beanie” Wells, did not play because of a foot injury.
The Trojans utilized the extra practice afforded by last week’s open date to stuff a Buckeyes team coming off an unimpressive victory over Ohio.
“We were in the right spots all night to make plays,” defensive end Kyle Moore said.
USC trailed, 3-0, after the Buckeyes launched a methodical first-quarter drive, but the Trojans came roaring back with Sanchez touchdown passes to fullback Stanley Havili and freshman tight end Blake Ayles and Maualuga’s 48-yard interception return for a 21-3 halftime lead.
“I was dreaming about this moment since I got here to SC,” said Maualuga, who may have become the front-runner for the Butkus Award.
USC put the game away in the third quarter when Sanchez found receiver Damian Williams for touchdowns on consecutive possessions.
“We played a great team tonight,” Ohio State Coach Jim Tressel said. “When you commit turnovers and you have penalties to stop drives, it makes it hard to win.
“A good team like USC makes it hard for you to climb back in. And when you throw a pick-six the other way, things like that make it hard.”
It was the second consecutive solid performance for Sanchez. The junior from Mission Viejo completed 17 of 28 passes for 172 yards, his only major mistake an interception in the end zone in the waning seconds of the first half.
After passing for 510 yards and seven touchdowns in two games, Sanchez has thrown himself into the Heisman Trophy discussion.
“I didn’t want him to try too hard, just keep playing the way he did against Virginia,” offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said. “That was, take what the defense was giving him, and when there were opportunities down the field to take his shots. For the most part I thought he did it.”
Sophomore tailback Joe McKnight provided most of USC’s rushing attack, running for 105 yards in 12 carries. The Trojans finished with 348 total yards. “We’re not even close to where we want to be as an offense,” Sanchez said.
Don’t tell that to Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis, last season’s Butkus Award winner.
“They have a lot of good running backs, great talent on the outside and [Sanchez ] proved tonight he’s a great quarterback, and he proved it on a big stage,” Laurinaitis said.
Without Wells, Tressel tried to confuse the Trojans by alternating quarterbacks Todd Boeckman and Terrelle Pryor on nearly every play through most of the first three quarters.
The Buckeyes managed only 71 yards rushing, 40 coming from Pryor, a mobile freshman. USC sacked Boeckman four times, Pryor once and limited the Buckeyes to 207 yards.
“They did everything we saw on film -- nothing changed,” Maualuga said
USC players were mixed on whether Wells would have changed the outcome.
“I don’t know that it would have been any different,” said Moore, who had eight tackles, including a sack, and recovered a fumble forced by Clay Matthews.
Said linebacker Brian Cushing, who had 10 tackles: “He’s a very physical player, a very physical runner. I think they could have established the run a lot better.”
The Trojans have another open date next week before opening the Pac-10 schedule on Sept. 25 at Oregon State. Moore, perhaps remembering last year’s upset loss to Stanford, said the Trojans will not look too far ahead.
“The Pac-10 knows us well, that’s going to be a fight to the end,” Moore said. “You have to be ready for everything.”