YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

This Tailback U. Was Wearing Blue : Tar Heels: It is the running game of North Carolina, not USC, that dominates the game.


It was vintage John Robinson offense. Student body right. Student body left. There were option plays galore. Pinpoint pitches. Power bursts up the middle.

One problem--it wasn't Robinson's much-ballyhooed ball-control offense. It was North Carolina's.

So much for The Debut, or at least the one everyone was talking about. While a nation's media made the pilgrimage to Heritage Hall to interview the returning Robinson, two young tailbacks--a sophomore named Curtis Johnson and a freshman named Leon Johnson--toiled in virtual national anonymity back at Chapel Hill. It was hoped that they could somehow replace Natrone Means, who rushed for 1,195 yards last fall for the Tar Heels.

North Carolina Coach Mack Brown can rest easy. Johnson & Johnson combined for 176 yards and two touchdowns. They were part of a tag-team running attack that amassed 291 yards and four touchdowns in the 31-9 Tar Heel victory Sunday night at Anaheim Stadium.

By the time it was over, Robinson looked as if he had been zapped with a stun gun. And the Trojan defense looked like a petrified forest.

"We didn't see a lot of option last year and it's hard to get used to it at the beginning of this year," USC defensive tackle Matt Keneley said. "We couldn't do it. We couldn't stop their option or their trap game."

The Trojans couldn't stop much of anything after the first few North Carolina offensive series. Every time they looked up, a Tar Heel back was zipping past for big gains.

Leon Johnson finished with a touchdown and 94 yards in 10 attempts. Curtis Johnson had 78 yards and a touchdown. Backup fullback William Henderson had 40 yards and a score. Even split end Marcus Wall had 30 yards and a visit to the end zone.

Afterward, the Tar Heels gloated. Guard Russell Babb left the field doing his best Aretha Franklin imitation--that is, he was heard singing, "R-E-S-P-E-C-T."

Curtis Johnson was more than happy to recount the taunting done by Trojan players early in the game.

"They were talking a lot of junk," he said. "They were saying that the (Atlantic Coast Conference) doesn't get respect, that the West Coast is better. But I felt we were going to dominate."

Earlier in the week, as the two teams assembled for a Pigskin Classic-sponsored luncheon, Robinson was heard to say that the Trojan and Tar Heel offenses were strikingly similar. Both attacks depended on the run. Both attacks were designed to control the clock and, in the process, demoralize the opponent.

"In the second period," North Carolina guard Shawn Hocker said, "it hit me: 'This is exactly what Coach Robinson was talking about.' "

The Tar Heels could do little wrong. When USC defensive coordinator Don Lindsey ordered a new defensive front, something Hocker said the Trojans did at least three times, North Carolina was ready.

"By the third, fourth quarter we started wearing them down," Hocker said. "We were just moving the ball at will. We'd break the huddle, come back to the line and they'd have their hands on their hips. They had this look on their faces like, 'Not another play.' You could physically see it and you could feel it."

Hocker said that the Trojans were especially weary on goal-line situations. More than once he heard USC players ask to be replaced.

"We beat them down physically," he said.

But 291 net rushing yards? Sixteen rushing first downs?

To listen to Leon Johnson, it could have been more. Compared to North Carolina's first-team defense, the one Johnson has to go against each day, he said Sunday's game was a breeze.

"Our defense is real good," he said. "Once we got out there, it felt a little easier, it felt a little more open."

Leon Johnson can thank quarterback Jason Stanicek for that. Stanicek, voted the game's most outstanding player, was nearly flawless. He ran the option to near perfection and ran USC to frustration. So what if he attempted only eight passes, completing six for 101 yards? It was his control of the Tar Heel option attack that decided the game.

"I thought we would be adequate against the option, but I guess we didn't pay enough attention to it in practice," Robinson said.

Now he knows. Now everyone knows.

Los Angeles Times Articles