John David Booty did not expect it to be easy.
USC’s quarterback had stood on the Coliseum sideline for three years and watched as the Trojans matured into one of the most potent offenses in college football history.
But when Booty started at the Coliseum for the first time before an expectant sellout crowd Saturday night, his goal was modest: A mistake-free performance and a victory.
Booty engineered both as the fourth-ranked Trojans defeated 19th-ranked Nebraska in workmanlike fashion, 28-10, before 92,000.
“Not every game is going to be a walk in the park,” Booty said.
It might have seemed that way after the Trojans routed Arkansas, 50-14, in their opener two weeks ago, but a stubborn and conservative Nebraska team looking for respect made USC work for its 28th consecutive victory at home.
On a clear and breezy night before a crowd bathed in USC cardinal and pockets of Nebraska red, the Trojans were unable to uncork the trademark scoring sprees that typified USC teams of the previous three-plus seasons.
Coach Pete Carroll said he was proud of the defense and the Trojans’ hard-fought victory, but acknowledged that stylistically as a whole, “It didn’t feel right. Too many issues.”
Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin agreed after the Trojans amassed only 399 yards.
Asked how he thought the offense played, Kiffin grimaced and said, “Not very well. We have a long ways to go.”
For all the wringing of hands, there were several bright spots for the Trojans.
Booty completed 25 of 36 passes for 257 yards and three touchdowns without an interception.
“I thought I did all right, but I know I can keep getting better,” said Booty, who has passed for six touchdowns with no interceptions in two games.
Booty benefited from an outstanding performance by All-American split end Dwayne Jarrett. The junior from New Jersey, who was slowed by a leg injury throughout training camp and the opener, caught 11 passes for 136 yards with two touchdowns.
Last week, Kiffin had criticized Jarrett for not playing at an All-American level against Arkansas.
“I kind of did need this game to let the world know I’m still working hard, I’m still out there,” said Jarrett, who established a USC record with his 31st touchdown catch.
Jarrett’s first touchdown came on a 12-yard pass after he beat Nebraska cornerback Andre Jones on a post route. Jones, a transfer from Fresno City College, had boldly predicted that the Cornhuskers would beat the Trojans.
“It felt good, just from his running his mouth,” Jarrett said.
Nebraska (2-1) had looked efficient in easy victories over Louisiana Tech and Nicholls State, but the Cornhuskers struggled to move consistently against a USC defense that featured four players stepping in for injured starters.
Fili Moala played in place of nose tackle Sedrick Ellis, freshman Taylor Mays stepped in for safety Josh Pinkard, cornerback Cary Harris started in place of Kevin Thomas and sophomore middle linebacker Rey Maualuga made his first career start in place of Oscar Lua.
The quartet helped the Trojans limit Nebraska to 211 yards, only 68 rushing.
“They dominated,” said Cornhuskers running back Marlon Lucky, a former North Hollywood High star who was limited to 27 yards in 10 carries.
Before the game, Nebraska Coach Bill Callahan had called the matchup against the Trojans a measuring stick for the Cornhuskers.
“Our guys competed hard against one of the best teams in the country, but when you compete against teams like this, the margin for error is minute,” Callahan said afterward. “We had critical penalties and mistakes.”
Just as Arkansas did in the opener, Nebraska opened the door for the Trojans on its first possession of the second half.
Lucky and quarterback Zac Taylor could not complete an exchange and Harris recovered the fumble at the Cornhuskers 31.
Four plays later, Jarrett beat cornerback Cortney Grixby for a five-yard touchdown pass and a 21-3 USC lead.
Nebraska launched a threat with 1:16 left in the quarter, Taylor connecting with tight end Matt Herian on a 36-yard pass play on the final play of the period for a first down at the Trojans three.
USC appeared to be on its way to an easy win when Maualuga hit Taylor and forced a fumble that was recovered by Keith Rivers. However, linebacker Dallas Sartz was called for holding, giving the Cornhuskers another chance.
USC stuffed tailback Kenny Wilson twice before Taylor ran a bootleg around left end for a touchdown, cutting the deficit to 21-10.
But Booty completed five of seven passes on an 81-yard, 14-play drive that tailback Chauncey Washington capped with a seven-yard touchdown run.
“I didn’t know what to do,” said Washington, who is playing this season for the first time since 2003. “Coach Carroll says don’t celebrate, so I just ran back to my O-line to thank them for letting me get in.”
USC next travels to Arizona for its Pacific 10 Conference opener.
“We’re starting to come together,” linebacker Sartz said. “This is exactly where we wanted to be going into the conference.
“We’re only going to get better.”