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Trojans Wax Defensive in Astrodome Victory

College football: USC keeps Houston offense in check, 26-9. Otton throws for two touchdowns.

September 22, 1996|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HOUSTON — You would have expected a quiet, somber USC locker room Saturday, considering the Trojans survived with a whole a lot of defense and just enough offense to turn back Houston, 26-9.

But there they were, quarterback Brad Otton and tailback LaVale Woods, bickering over a car wash?

"Whoever made the most touchdowns, me running or him passing, had to wash the other guy's car," said Woods, who claimed Otton had spotted him a touchdown.

Otton, who passed for two touchdowns, including one with 10:16 left that seemed to lift the Trojans out of difficulty, denied the wager was handicapped and said he expects to see Woods arrive at his Studio City apartment this week, with hose and bucket.

Otton was on the beam when he had to be, camped on Houston's 32-yard line early in the fourth quarter, and USC leading, 17-9, in a game it could still lose.

But the 6-foot-6 senior, on a first and 10, sidestepped two Cougar rushers, saw 6-3 Billy Miller streaking on a crossing pattern, and put a pass softly into his hands at the five. Miller scored easily.

Miller's second touchdown catch of the day came one play after USC, for the third consecutive game, set an offensive school record.

Two weeks ago, Matt Koffler and R. Jay Soward teamed for the longest USC pass play ever, 97 yards. Last weekend, Woods had the longest Trojan run ever, 96 yards.

This time it was John Allred's 10-catch, 103-yard day--the most receptions by a USC tight end, surpassing a nine-catch game by Joe Cormier in 1983.

Allred, a 6-5, 250-pound senior who is also the team's best blocker, set up the final touchdown with a 20-yard catch-run play.

But this one belonged to the defense, Coach John Robinson said afterward, and no one wanted to argue. Consider:

--Houston (2-2) came into the game averaging almost 40 points per game, but USC gave up only three field goals.

--Houston's offensive line hadn't allowed a sack of quarterback Chuck Clements, but USC (3-1) got him twice and pressured him all day.

And USC had a big games from freshman middle linebacker Chris Claiborne, in his first start; cornerback Daylon McCutcheon, weakside linebacker Sammy Knight (game-high 11 tackles), tackles Darrell Russell and Matt Keneley and a rapidly developing star at strong safety, junior Grant Pearsall.

Pearsall created several noteworthy collisions. The best remembered will be a crusher on Houston's Ketric Sanford to abruptly end an eight-yard run with 4:18 to go. In a quiet Astrodome game attended by only 21,035, the crunch could be heard 100 yards away.

Moments earlier, he forced a Houston fumble on a punt return with a tackle on Charles West, and Marvin Powell III recovered. That started a USC drive that resulted in an Adam Abrams field goal that gave USC its final margin, 26-9.

Claiborne had eight tackles and a final-drive interception of Clements that allowed the Trojans to run out the clock.

Robinson and his staff seemed relieved it was over. This was a Houston team easily superior to the one USC hammered in 1993 and 1995 Coliseum games, 49-7 and 45-10.

"I think Kim Helton [the fourth-year Houston coach] has done every bit as great a job here as Gary Barnett has done at Northwestern," Robinson said.

"It wasn't an easy game for us, so it was a good game for us. We had to earn everything we got. We didn't have a good offensive performance and I'm disappointed at that, but we had to play hard to win and that's good."

The game marked the return of junior tailback Delon Washington, who started and rushed for 29 yards in 14 carries. Washington was returning from a three-game suspension. In fact, Houston's inside blitzes resulted in USC gaining only 92 net yards rushing.

"We didn't block for Delon the way we can," Robinson said. "We took some steps backward today, but against good teams you expect that."

Allred's record-breaking day wasn't in the game plan, according to Otton.

"They did a good job on our outside guys, they just forced us to go up the middle with our passes," he said.

Otton was sharp in the fourth quarter, going five for eight before Robinson let Koffler run the final series.

"Throwing the ball, I've been mediocre so far," Otton said. "But I think I threw well after halftime.

"I think all of us are getting into a rhythm, the longer the season goes along."

The Trojans never trailed, opening the scoring with a snoozer of a first drive, lurching their way through a 22-play, 80-yard, nine-minutes-plus march that ended with a 31-yard Abrams field goal

Houston was still in the game in the fourth quarter, trailing only 17-9, but was hurt badly when Sebastian Villarreal missed a 23-yard field goal try.

USC immediately turned that into a 23-9 lead six plays later, with the 32-yard Otton-to-Miller play.

At the finish, all that was left to argue over was the car wash.

Otton: "If LaVale says I have to wash his car, he's dreaming."

* MAKING WAVES

Tight end John Allred would rather surf or block, but he caught a record 10 passes. C8

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