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COLLEGE FOOTBALL : Webster Right in His Element : USC Tailback Celebrates Mudder's Day at Coliseum

November 01, 1987|JULIE CART | Times Staff Writer

Don't suggest to Steven Webster that he's the Trojan good-luck charm. Just because every time the USC tailback has gained more than 100 yards in a game, the Trojans have won, doesn't mean Webster's anybody's keychain.

And just because it happened again Saturday doesn't mean it's a trend.

It's tough to be a charm when you've led a less-than-charmed life. Webster's career in the USC backfield has been more of the bad- luck variety, but that appears to be changing. Webster rushed for 157 yards in 23 carries and scored two touchdowns as USC ran over Washington State, 42-7, at the Coliseum Saturday.

It was a soggy day of old-fashioned, muck-in-the-mud football. And Webster, who in his third season at USC is really just getting started, appeared to be in his element. He was a factor in every Trojan touchdown drive. On one drive, USC's first possession of the third quarter, Webster carried on 5 of 6 plays and scored the touchdown.

"The more you do things, the better you get to be out there," said Clarence Shelmon, coach of USC's running backs. "He's waiting for his blockers, he's reading the holes better. He's really just a freshman out there."

What Shelmon refers to is Webster's puny statistics before this season: he'd played in only 4 of the Trojans' 24 games the last two seasons. It stands to reason he'd improve.

When they speak of running backs as having "good wheels," Webster can be thought of as having two flat tires. His ankles, right and left, have been making cuts on the field that the tailback hadn't planned on.

It's been going on for three years. Webster sprained his ankle during a practice in his freshman (redshirt) season. He had ankle ligament surgery the following spring.

That recovery lingered until the third week of last season. When Webster finally did get into a game, USC's seventh, he reinjured his ankle the second time he got the ball. Webster didn't play again last season.

It was enough to break most players. But Webster resolved to heal himself over the summer. In USC's spring practices, he established himself as the No. 1 tailback. The summer lay ahead for strength and conditioning.

Good intentions went sour when Webster blew out his left ankle (the good one) playing basketball the first day of summer.

USC Coach Larry Smith could not have been less pleased with that development, especially after he expressly forbade Webster from playing basketball.

"It was a mistake that I made," Webster said. "I was projected to be the starting guy. I damaged myself."

In more ways than one. Not only did Webster gain another weak ankle, he lost about 15 pounds, dropping him to 170. At that weight and standing only 5 feet 10 inches, he's admittedly a smaller target for defensive players, but he's also a more frail one.

Asked if he's concerned about Webster's ankles, Shelmon laughed, "Ankles? I'm concerned about his whole body. He's so little. We want him to be about 188 to 190 next season."

After missing the first game of this season because of his still-recovering left ankle, Webster has run for more than 100 yards in five of the seven games in which he's played. He rushed for 70 yards in the Trojans' loss to Notre Dame last week--a day when most of the USC team was struggling.

"He really hasn't had a bad game," Shelmon said. "It looked that way against Notre Dame, but we just didn't get the ball to him."

Webster said Saturday that he was aware that when he gains less than 100 yards, his team loses, but put little credence in the coincidence.

"No, I'm not a lucky charm," Webster said, equally embarrassed and indignant at the thought that he's the key to USC's success. "After the Notre Dame game, we prepared really hard for this game because we knew that we still have a chance for the Rose Bowl.

"Today, the offensive line was coming off the ball really well. We dominated the line of scrimmage. I felt confident and comfortable out there. We had good balance offensively. When you get the running game going, it opens up the passing game."

Webster had a hand in that, too. He was the Trojans' leading receiver, catching 3 passes for 51 yards.

So, a healthy Webster is clearly helping the Trojan effort to get to the Rose Bowl. And, if another game of 100-plus yards helps, that's just Webster's luck . . . and USC's.

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