EAST LANSING, Mich. — In his first game, USC's new football coach will be without a completely fit No. 1 tailback, facing a highly regarded opponent in unfamiliar surroundings before a national television audience.
You expected the Larry Smith era to start quietly?
Under portable lights, in the first night game at 76,000-seat Spartan Stadium, Smith will be on the spot tonight when USC opens the season against a Michigan State team that is being called the best since the glory days of Duffy Daugherty in the 1960s.
Kickoff is at 5 p.m., PDT (Channels 7 and 10.)
Would Smith rather open against, say, Bowling Green?
"If you play a team you're supposed to beat, you walk away from the game, whether you win or lose, and you're not very satisfied," he said the other day. "And I know around here, satisfaction means a lot. Satisfaction means being proud of who you've beaten, and how you've done it."
The implication is that the Trojans would be proud to win tonight.
Michigan State, with 17 returning starters, is said to be loaded, and the game and attendant festivities are being hyped as "The Great American Football Celebration."
A fireworks show and brief performance by singer Lee Greenwood are scheduled for halftime, and the winner of the "Great State Tailgate" contest will be awarded eight round-trip tickets to London.
"This is probably the biggest opener in the history of this school," said Michigan State Coach George Perles, a former assistant under Daugherty and with the Pittsburgh Steelers. "ABC. Monday night football. Labor Day in the state of Michigan. I get chills when I think about it."
Truth be known, USC's Smith would probably rather open in less conspicuous surroundings against a less formidable foe.
"You rise to the occasion," he said. "But every coach probably would rather have a game that he feels he should win or will win."
Instead, he's up against a Michigan State team that has already cracked at least one Top 20 poll and is expected to crack several more if it survives a demanding early schedule that, after tonight, has the Spartans playing Notre Dame, Florida State, Iowa and Michigan on consecutive weekends.
Among the most talented Spartans is tailback Lorenzo White, who rushed for 1,908 yards two years ago. Ankle and knee injuries limited him last season to 633.
Seven other offensive starters return from a 6-5 team, including wide receiver Andre Rison, who set school records last season with 54 receptions for 966 yards and is said to be faster than former teammate Mark Ingram, a first-round draft choice of the New York Giants.
But stopping White is Smith's No. 1 priority.
Michigan State lost four games by three points last season, and the feeling around East Lansing is that with an uninjured White, the Spartans would have landed in a bowl game for the third straight year.
"Everything centers around Lorenzo White," Smith said. "They look like USC when USC had Marcus Allen. They try to find every way in the book to run a sweep at you."
The Spartans, who went to the air more frequently with White on the mend last season, will be more run-oriented this time. Quarterback Bobby McAllister--who succeeded four-year starter Dave Yarema, the Spartans' all-time passing leader--will run an option offense.
Defensively, the Spartans have nine starters back from a unit that last season ranked first in the Big Ten in rushing defense and second, behind Michigan, in total defense.
Perles, the architect of Pittsburgh's "Steel Curtain" defenses of the 1970s, has implemented the same defense in his four seasons at Michigan State. Smith calls it an unorthodox style that attempts to disrupt blocking schemes with twisting and stunting by the down linemen.
A lot of teams use it, Smith said. "But George originated it, and they play it better than anybody in the country. It's a big challenge for us offensively."
Also presenting a challenge to Smith offensively is the condition of his No. 1 tailback, a hearty but less than hale Steven Webster, whose ankle injury is expected to limit his activity tonight.
Smith hopes to re-establish USC's once-vaunted running game--which averaged only 3.3 yards a carry last season, its lowest average since 1957--by injecting more speed. He considers the elusive Webster, a 5-foot 10-inch, 185-pound junior, a key ingredient.
But Webster, who injured ligaments in his left ankle while playing basketball two months ago, is expected to play only about a quarter tonight. Ryan Knight, whose average gain has decreased in each of the last two seasons despite his team-leading rushing totals, will start.
The focal point of the USC offense will again be junior quarterback Rodney Peete, who last season passed for 2,138 yards, becoming only the third Trojan to throw for more than 2,000 in a season.