CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — John Robinson will find out this afternoon if his young football players' spanking in New Jersey two weekends ago moved them any closer to adulthood.
Or even their late teens.
He has attributed most of the flaws shown in his team's 24-7 loss to Penn State to youthful inexperience, and he and his players seem to believe a Marine Corps-like week of high-intensity, head-knocking practices might have produced the proper antidote for stage fright.
The Trojans play their third consecutive Big Ten opponent in 1996 today. With last season's team, they started with a 41-32 win over Northwestern in Pasadena. Then this year's version wilted in the Aug. 25 Kickoff Classic against Penn State.
Illinois, too, is 0-1, after a 20-8 loss to Michigan last weekend. About 60,000 are expected.
Can raising the intensity level of practices about 50% bring maturity to a young football team?
Beginning Monday, there was a heightened sense of urgency at Howard Jones Field. The practices since have been the most intense since Robinson returned to USC in 1993.
The tackling seemed much better. Then again, no one had to tackle Curtis Enis, the 235-pound Penn State back who gained 241 yards against the Trojans.
A hot-pursuit drill for defensive backs and linebackers was introduced. About time, according to cornerback Daylon McCutcheon.
"There were too many people standing around, waiting for someone else to make a big play," he said, after seeing film of the loss to Penn State.
Linebacker Sammy Knight, called by coaches USC's best defensive performer in the Penn State game, echoed McCutcheon's analysis.
"Any time you have this many new players in starting positions [10 first-year players got significant playing time against Penn State], you're going to have problems," Knight said.
"All this work on pursuit will help us, because it not only teaches the young guys they have to get to the ball, it also gives you more intensity at the same time."
Defensive tackle Matt Keneley said the muffed tackles in New Jersey should officially be put in the past tense today.
"It's been a great week," he said. "We just have to play harder than we did against Penn State, and [defensive coordinator Keith Burns] has made sure we know how to get in proper position to bring people down."
Offensively, USC needs better pass-blocking than quarterback Brad Otton had in the opener. And it needs better marksmanship from Otton.
Again, youth. Sophomore offensive right tackle Ken Bowen is the biggest Trojan at 6 feet 8 and 320 pounds but four times Penn State's left defensive ends ran around him on their way to Otton, leaving 5-7 tailback LaVale Woods to block someone nearly a foot taller.
Robinson may try to inject some lightning into his running game. Tailbacks Woods and Rodney Sermons didn't exactly frighten the Nittany Lions--they ran for 146 yards--so he has moved 5-8 freshman cornerback Chad Morton over as the third tailback.
Depth became a necessity at the position when the NCAA decided to keep suspended starter Delon Washington on suspension for two more games. He had been suspended for the opener by USC because of an "ethical infraction," but the NCAA tacked on two more games.
Washington and his running mate, Shawn Walters, won't be available until the Sept. 21 game against Houston.
Illinois Coach Lou Tepper needs better production against the Trojans than he had against Michigan inside the 20-yard line.
"We completed 25 of 38 passes with no interceptions and had only one turnover, and that was a bad snap," he said.
"We had no delays, no fast starts, so our offense was efficient until we got into the red zone."
USC President Steven B. Sample will have mixed loyalties this afternoon. He received his doctorate in electrical engineering from Illinois in 1965. . . . This Trojan team is almost entirely John Robinson's. Only seven fifth-year seniors, recruited by Larry Smith, remain: Jeff Diltz, Mark Farlin, Matt Keneley, Matt Koffler, Willie Lowery, Greg Tellam and Shawn Walters. . . . Only one starting lineup change today: Cedric Jefferson replaces George Perry at defensive end.