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COLLEGE FOOTBALL / 1996

USC Defense Doesn't Have an Option

Trojans: Oregon State makes it simple for Knight and his friends, who are able to stop the run.

September 15, 1996|LONNIE WHITE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In his third season as a defensive starter, USC senior Sammy Knight has had to adjust to his new role as the Trojans' weak-side linebacker after playing two years at strong safety.

Instead of concentrating on being a defensive back, Knight must now be able to play as a run-stopper and a coverage back at the same time. It all depends on the style of offense the Trojans face each game.

On Saturday at the Coliseum, Knight and his fellow linebackers' job was simple going against Oregon State's option attack. Stop the run. Stop the run and stop the run.

"I was able to move around and give them more looks," said Knight, who had 10 tackles, nine unassisted, in USC's 46-17 victory over the Beavers. "That gave them a lot of problems because they really didn't know where I was going to line up."

With Oregon State' passing offense not really a threat, USC's linebackers were able to attack the Beavers' quarterbacks, Tim Alexander and Rahim Muhammad.

The Beavers had 216 yards on offense, but most of those came on two long plays in the first half. Alexander gained 41 yards on a keeper before being knocked out of bounds by Knight, and later completed a 40-yard pass play to tailback DeShawn Williams.

"With that kind of offense, it takes you a while to get going on defense," USC Coach John Robinson said. "They had eight first downs real quick and then they didn't get any more [until the second half]."

After getting those eight first downs in the first quarter, Oregon State did not get another until midway into the fourth and finished with 11.

Joining Knight in team-high honors in tackles was outside linebacker Mark Cusano, who finished with nine, including seven unassisted. Cusano also scored the defense's second touchdown of the season when he picked up a fumble and ran eight yards for a score in the third quarter.

"When a team runs the option like they do, we knew that they were going to make mistakes," said Cusano, a sophomore from Texas. "In high school, we played against a lot of option teams where it is four yards and a cloud of dust.

"I like playing against teams where my first steps are forward because I don't have to drop back worrying about a pass."

Freshman middle linebacker Chris Claiborne has the only other defensive touchdown this season when he recovered a fumble for a score against Penn State in USC's season-opening loss in the Kickoff Classic.

Since then, Claiborne has played more as a backup to Taso Papadakis. Against Oregon State, he made several key plays in slowing down the Beavers' option quarterbacks.

"I'm seeing the game a lot faster now," said Claiborne, who had two unassisted tackles. "It helps now that I am practicing with the starters more. Instead of thinking so much, I'm starting to now just go out and play and use my speed to make plays."

Against Oregon State, USC gave up only 97 yards passing and assisted on many running plays.

"I think that our cornerbacks were the key today," Knight said about USC defensive backs Daylon McCutcheon and Ken Haslip. "They were out on an island all game playing man-to-man on [Oregon State's] receivers. They really stopped their option because their coverage freed us up to stop their run."

Overall, USC's defensive effort was impressive for the second consecutive week. With linemen Darrell Russell (six tackles, including three sacks) and Cedric Jefferson (six tackles, including one sack) getting more pressure in opponents' backfield, Robinson says the defense is getting better each week.

Next up is the passing attack of Houston in the Astrodome.

"Well, we had our fun stopping the run, now we have to get our pass coverage together," Knight said about facing the Cougars. "It'll be time to get some picks [interceptions]."

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