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They're the Also-Rans Who Can't Play Catch

USC: Dropped passes haunt the Trojans as they prepare to face Stanford.

November 09, 1996|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PALO ALTO — USC plays a team tonight with an offense even more punchless than its own.

If it were boxing, this would be a junior-flyweight bout.

USC, 5-4 overall and 3-3 in the Pacific 10, meets Stanford (3-5, 2-3) in a battle of offensive doormats. USC ranks eighth in the conference in total offense at 355 yards a game. Stanford is last at 300.

The Trojan woes seemed never-ending this week, after another Saturday of poor pass receiving, a nonexistent running game and dreadful pass blocking.

USC coaches have tried everything except hypnosis on their wide receivers, who dropped three passes in the 21-10 loss to Washington last Saturday.

The culprits have been sophomore Billy Miller--who has lost his starting job--senior Chris Miller and freshman R. Jay Soward.

What can a coach do?

The question was put to Fresno State Coach Jim Sweeney, retiring this season after 32 years as a Division I head coach.

"At some point, they [receivers] all go through this," he said.

"I had Henry Ellard when he was a sophomore, and he couldn't catch anything. We had a big game at [Pacific], and I benched him. I told him early in the week he wouldn't play because he couldn't catch anything.

"Then, at the game, just when the national anthem died down, I went up to him and said: 'I changed my mind. You're starting.'

"He caught something like nine balls that night, all in double and triple coverage, and I don't think he ever dropped another pass the rest of his career.

"I think with a lot of young players, there's a certain nervous reaction to college football. The speed and the competition changes. And two other things happen: They all think run yardage before they make the catch, and a lot of them, frankly, hear ambulance sirens.

"The harder hitting in the college game--that's definitely a factor, even though no kid would ever admit that to you."

Whatever, quarterback Brad Otton will hope tonight that Stanford's pass rush doesn't get to him the way Washington's did last week, when he was sacked six times.

Last year, Stanford linebacker Chris Draft drilled Otton, forcing him out of the game with a cracked rib. Draft is still around. He and fellow linebacker Jon Haskins have a combined 150 tackles. Draft has a chance to become the first Cardinal with successive 100-tackle seasons in seven years.

USC Coach John Robinson and defensive coordinator Keith Burns hope there's no carry-over for Stanford quarterback Chad Hutchinson, after his second-half performance in a 21-20 victory over UCLA last week.

Hutchinson completed 13 of 17 passes in the second half and seven in a row on the Cardinal's winning 80-yard drive. In Stanford's three wins, Hutchinson is a 71% passer.

The principal Cardinal threat is Mike Mitchell, who is averaging 75 yards a game on the ground and has caught 32 passes for 147 yards.

Stanford's Troy Walters had a career game against UCLA, eight catches for 144 yards and a touchdown.

Again, most of USC's hopes will be pegged to its defense, ranked third in the conference, giving up 346 yards a game. It has given up 20 touchdowns, second-fewest in the league.

The Trojan defense is tied with Arizona State for the lead in scoring defense, 19.4 points.

Trojan Notes

The Trojans are 17-2-1 in the last 20 games against the Cardinal and are 28-6-2 in games played at Stanford. The Cardinal's last victory: 1992, 23-9, at Stanford. . . . Tonight's is USC's 100th consecutive game on live TV. . . . Stanford free safety Charles Young is the son of former USC tight end Charle Young. Defensive end Tony Vella is the son of ex-Trojan tackle John Vella. . . . USC kicker Adam Abrams' brother is Eric Abrams, ex-Stanford kicker.

At this point in the season last year, Keyshawn Johnson had 70 catches. This season, fullback Rodney Sermons leads the team with 32. . . . Junior defensive tackle Darrell Russell is a semifinalist for the Outland Trophy. . . . Safety Sammy Knight is third in the Pac-10 in tackles with 82. . . . The USC-Stanford series dates to 1905 and is uninterrupted since 1945. . . . Tailback Delon Washington needs 82 yards to break into USC's career top-10 rushing list.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

USC at Stanford

* Where: Palo Alto, 7:15 p.m.

* Records: USC 5-4, 3-3; Stanford 3-5, 2-3.

* TV: Fox Sports West.

* Radio: KLSX-FM (97.1).

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