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COLLEGE FOOTBALL / 1996

Trojans Dazed and Confused by This One

USC: Players and coaches are stunned by sixth consecutive setback against their archrival.

November 24, 1996|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It used to be, when USC absorbed its annual thumping from UCLA, you saw and heard anger and rage in the Trojan locker room.

You saw 300-pound players so angry reporters felt physically endangered in asking questions.

You heard curses screamed and saw helmets thrown and shoes bouncing off walls.

But never in the six consecutive years that UCLA has beaten USC have Trojan players react like this.

The reaction to Saturday's 48-41 overtime loss was complete shock and pain.

Everyone from USC President Steven B. Sample down to the team managers wore stricken looks in the aftermath.

Linda Robinson, Coach John Robinson's wife, cried quietly while being comforted by friends and family.

Chris Brymer, the 300-pound junior guard, walked up the Rose Bowl tunnel wearing the expression of a man who had just had a tooth extracted without a pain-killer.

LaVale Woods, the tailback whose fourth-quarter fumble enabled UCLA to tie the game at 38-38 in regulation, cried and talked to reporters at the same time . . . until Robinson walked by and ended it by saying: "That's enough, fellows."

Robinson himself had little to say.

But what could he say?

For the Trojans, the old nightmare themes--blocked kicks and poor second-half defense--returned once again, causing USC leads of 17-0, 24-7, 31-14 and finally 38-21 to evaporate.

And this time the price seemed so much higher than in similar come-from-ahead losses to Stanford, Arizona State and Cal.

This time it guaranteed USC's first non-winning season since 1991, only its second since 1985, and the Trojans' first non-bowl season since 1991.

"I don't know what to say," Robinson said. And he knew the whole week ahead would be like this, with speculation on his job security a prime topic.

Television lights flashed on and microphones were thrust forward at a man who was as close to speechless as he has been all season.

"We played as best as we could . . . I'm proud of my players, to have played as hard as they did today after the season we've had," he said. "I congratulate UCLA for the game they played." He was asked what he had told his players in a 10-minute closed-door talk after the game.

"I told them I was proud of them, that they'd played the best they could. The effort of our team, I'm very proud of that. I don't know what else we could have asked of them.

"This team has never lacked for effort. We've made errors [all season], and they're learning painful lessons. I really felt we played this one [hard] all the way to the end."

A Trojan sports information employee, standing nearby, then said R. Jay Soward, the freshman wide receiver who six passes for a school-record 260 yards, would be brought out for interviews.

"No you're not, no you're not," Robinson snapped.

Inside, senior quarterback Brad Otton, preparing to leave for USC Medical Hospital for X-rays of his injured ribs, talked about the play on which he was hurt.

Otton was tackled hard after throwing an incomplete pass on the second play of the fourth quarter. He writhed on the ground in pain, then left the game.

"It felt like my chest collapsed," he said. "I tried throwing on the sideline, but with one throw I knew I couldn't throw again today."

The worst part of his day?

"Being in here, taking a shower instead of being on the field with my team. That hurt worse than my ribs. . . .

"First and foremost, we wanted to win this for ourselves and for Coach Robinson, for all the heat he's taken. He's a great coach and we'll do anything we can for him."

On the walls above where senior linebacker Sammy Knight stood were signs proclaiming: "1996 City Championship" and "60-Minute Fight!"

"The coaches had us prepared," Knight said, moving toward the door. "It came down to the players doing their jobs."

Brymer, peeling off tape and answering questions in whispers, cursed softly and said: "I never even felt it slipping away. I felt all all along we were going to keep on scoring . . . and then it was gone."

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