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Putting Pigs in a Blanket
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — No electrifying runs were required.
No long, arcing passes were thrown.
On Saturday night, sixth-ranked USC began a new era the same way it started the one before it.
With defense and a remarkably efficient performance by a quarterback making his first start.
USC forced Arkansas to commit five turnovers, easing the pressure on John David Booty in a 50-14 victory before a record crowd of 76,564 at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
"We know there were those questions in the air about where we would be, what we're all about," Coach Pete Carroll said. "We came back and played football the way the Trojans play football."
USC's performance on a warm but mild evening harkened to the 2003 opener at Auburn, when the Trojans recorded a shutout in Matt Leinart's first start as the successor to Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer.
Leinart played nearly error-free in a victory that started USC on its way to the Associated Press national title and started Leinart on his way to one of the most successful careers in college football history.
Booty, a fourth-year junior, got off to an even better start.
He completed 25 of 34 passes for 261 yards and three second-half touchdowns without an interception.
Booty was 11 for 18 for 83 yards in the first half as USC forged a 16-7 lead on a touchdown run by C.J. Gable and three field goals by Mario Danelo.
The Trojans pulled away as Booty threw third-quarter touchdown passes to flanker Patrick Turner and tight end Fred Davis before adding a one-yard touchdown pass to fullback Ryan Powdrell early in the fourth quarter.
"I really felt like in the second half I came back out there and the game started to slow down a little bit and I wasn't pressing myself," Booty said. "I just let all those great athletes that I have around me make plays."
Teammates were impressed with Booty's demeanor in the huddle and his performance throughout the game.
"We always showed confidence in him," said split end Dwayne Jarrett, who caught five passes for 35 yards. "He's never rattled."
Last year against Arkansas, USC scored four times in eight plays and never looked back en route to a 70-17 victory at the Coliseum.
Arkansas defensive coordinator Reggie Herring had described the game as the most humiliating experience of his life. A banner hanging from the upper deck of the stadium read, "70: We Remember."
But with Leinart, fellow Heisman winner Reggie Bush and running back LenDale White gone to the NFL, the Trojans put their quick-strike game plan on the shelf and settled for a more methodical approach.
Still, they scored on their ninth play and amassed 472 yards.
"I knew we weren't going to miss a beat without Matt and Reggie," Jarrett said.
Gable, the first freshman to start an opener at tailback for USC, carried a team-high 12 times for 51 yards, but offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and assistant head coach Steve Sarkisian spread carries among six backs.
Freshmen Emmanuel Moody (seven carries for 58 yards) and Allen Bradford (five carries for 13 yards) scored touchdowns.
And the Trojans saw the return of junior Chauncey Washington, who played for the first time since 2003 and gained 55 yards in eight carries.
"It worked out great," Gable said. "We had fresh legs in there every play."
"They are young and you might not know their names, but they are good," Arkansas Coach Houston Nutt said. "When they get the ball on the 45 or the 50, it makes things easy for them and hard on our defense."
The easy victory would not have been possible without a spirited performance by a defense that displayed its speed throughout the game.
Arkansas' run-oriented offense was supposed to be upgraded with the arrival of offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who led nearby Springdale High to a state championship last season.
But the Trojans, playing mainly out of a 3-4 alignment that capitalizes on their talent and depth at linebacker, limited Arkansas to 287 yards and forced mistakes that eventually led to points.
Senior linebacker Dallas Sartz and junior nose tackle Sedrick Ellis forced fumbles and cornerbacks Terrell Thomas and Cary Harris and linebacker Thomas Williams intercepted passes thrown by Arkansas quarterbacks. Robert Johnson, the Razorbacks' starter, put together only one scoring drive.
"The defense came together and we had a blast doing it," said Sartz, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury against Arkansas last season. "We knew the offense would come out and do their thing."
USC took advantage of Arkansas turnovers and three field goals by Danelo to forge a 16-7 halftime lead.
In the early minutes, it looked as if it might become an exact repeat of the Trojans' 2003 opener, when USC intercepted a pass on the first series against Auburn and turned it into a touchdown en route to a 23-0 victory.
On the third play of the first possession Saturday night, Sartz forced Arkansas tailback Felix Jones to fumble and linebacker Keith Rivers recovered at the Arkansas 46. USC, however, moved no closer than the Razorbacks 18 and Danelo came on to kick a 35-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead.
Ellis made things easy for the offense in the second quarter by forcing Jones to fumble again at the Arkansas 22. Sophomore cornerback Kevin Thomas picked up the ball at the 15 and returned it to the three-yard line.
Two plays later, Gable took a handoff from Booty and ran around the right end for a touchdown and a 10-0 lead.
Danelo added a 38-yard field goal on USC's next possession before Arkansas scored its only touchdown against USC's first-team defense. Johnson capped an 80-yard drive with a one-yard run to make the score 13-7.
Danelo's career-best 44-yard field goal on the last play of the second quarter gave USC its nine-point lead at halftime.
As they did after playing road openers in 2004 and 2005, the Trojans return to Los Angeles with an open date before their home opener. USC plays Nebraska Sept. 16 at the Coliseum.
"All you ever want to be is undefeated at the bye," Carroll said. "Now we can go back to the competition [in practice] and get ready for Nebraska."