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At Disneyland, USC embraces the Rose Bowl distractions

Coach Clay Helton and the USC team enjoyed a day at Disneyland on Tuesday.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

USC players looked mostly relieved to be freed from the public-relations boondoggle that is the annual Rose Bowl excursion to Disneyland.

Tuesday’s event, featuring USC and Penn State, was designed to provide maximum exposure for Disney and its affiliated entities. There were mouse ears. There were dancers and confetti. There were very friendly guides, “Cars” (from the movie) and gratuitous photo opportunities. There were very big men looking mildly uncomfortable on rides, at places with names like Luigi’s Rollickin’ Roadsters.

This continued for about an hour, with time set aside for a few of the players to meet with members of the media who wanted to know about their favorite rides, or about football. The players selected for duty just wanted to try some of the rides. One of the perks of the trip was the ability to jump to the front of the lines, and the Trojans planned to take full advantage.

For USC, this was built into the Rose Bowl plan. Coach Clay Helton knew there would be distractions, and he wanted his players to let themselves be distracted.

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“I actually told them, ‘Guys, why do you think we worked as hard as we worked those two weeks? It was so you could enjoy these two weeks without having to be all the way focused in on a game plan,’ ” Helton said.

The Trojans seemed to get the message.

“When we’re in football, worry about football,” offensive tackle Zach Banner said. “When we’re at Disneyland, have fun.”

USC has spent the last two weeks running full practices and game preparation, as if it were playing Penn State each Saturday. Helton explained Tuesday that he had anticipated a hectic week before the Rose Bowl.

Penn State, which played an extra week because it participated in the Big Ten Conference title game, took the next week off, which put it behind USC in preparation. The Nittany Lions practiced only four days before leaving for Los Angeles, the sessions geared more toward the development of younger players than planning for USC.

USC took a similar approach last season, when it held only light practices before a Holiday Bowl loss to Wisconsin.

“I think the repetition is really, really important, to be honest with you,” Helton said.

Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said that by the third week, practices could become a grind “because you’re repeating, you go over the same thing.”

But he said he preferred over-preparation, to the point of mild tedium, over cramming.

“It’s like when you study for a test,” Smith-Schuster said. “It makes the test a lot easier.”

Banner said he probably would’ve been bored with the long slate of practices were he preparing for a lesser bowl. But not the Rose Bowl.

“I’m not bored at all,” he said, as Radiator Springs Racers zipped by behind him. “Look at me. I’m wearing Minnie Mouse ears.”

Good healthy, finally

Smith-Schuster held his hands out palms up, looking at the odd angles and jagged curves of his knuckles.

“I can just look at my hands,” Smith-Schuster said. “A lot of memories there.”

Smith-Schuster’s time at USC has been pocked with injuries. A bone in his right hand was fractured last season. Fingers in both hands have been dislocated. He has also dealt with injuries to his hip, shoulder, wrist, back and foot. By the middle of the season, he said we was waking up at 6:30 a.m. so he could arrive early at the training room, where he’d spend about three hours each day.

Now, with some time off, he is experiencing a new feeling: comfort.

“I’m not 100%,” he said. “But I’m like 90%.”

That is a high grade for Smith-Schuster. The last time he felt this good, he said, was three seasons ago against Fresno State — his first college game.

That is good news for USC. Smith-Schuster’s production has dipped from 1,454 yards last season to 781. That’s partially a result of double-teams and quarterback Sam Darnold’s tendency to spread his passes among several receivers. But Smith-Schuster’s injuries haven’t helped.

He has almost forgotten what it feels like to play healthy, he said.

“I feel like my body’s getting old,” he said. “But it’s not though, you know?”

Quick hit

Linebacker Olajuwon Tucker and defensive tackle Kevin Scott, both reserves, are academically ineligible and will not play in the Rose Bowl, Helton said.

zach.helfand@latimes.com

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand


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