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There Seem to Be Holes in Trojan Running Game

USC: Poor performance against Florida State is termed a team effort.

September 10, 1997|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

All that shoving and struggling for 3 1/2 hours against Florida State, and when it was over, USC had rushed for 25 yards.

That's not even the distance of the wind sprints the players run by the bundle after practice.

This is supposed to be a season for USC to put behind the embarrassment of finishing 90th in the nation in rushing. But the ground attack in Saturday's 14-7 loss to Florida State was hardly promising, and tailback Delon Washington is already on the verge of facing a challenge for his job as USC prepares to face a Washington State defense that snuffed UCLA with a goal-line stand.

Give Florida State credit for USC's struggle to run the ball. The Seminoles held opponents to an average of 59 yards rushing last season, and Washington was still shaking his head about the speed of the ends and linebackers.

"We have a lot of work to do," he said.

Assign plenty of blame to a USC offensive line that was supposed to have matured and might be without guard Chris Brymer on Saturday against Washington State at the Coliseum. Brymer is questionable because of a sprained ankle.

"Running is blocking," USC Coach John Robinson said. "It's 'Get your hands inside, get lower, come off the ball, be more aggressive.'

"You can say, 'Well, they're good,' or you can say we didn't get the job done. We have to get the job done whoever we play."

Who is going to play for USC might soon be more of a question.

Washington--a 1,000-yard rusher two seasons ago--was held to 16 yards in 18 carries and ought to be hearing footsteps. Robinson said he isn't looking to make a change, but freshman Malaefou MacKenzie and sophomore Petros Papadakis are going to get more carries Saturday.

Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is more straightforward. He wants enough competition to push Washington to either step up or step aside.

"What I'm looking for in a running back is someone who's going to take over and dominate a football game," Jackson said. "Delon has an opportunity to do it, and if he's not able, we'll give someone else a chance.

"I'm not being disloyal to Delon. It was a combination of things, not just him. We need to get our tailback to be productive, whoever that is."

Nobody's claiming Washington missed holes Saturday, only that he didn't make the most out of what was there--perhaps because of his recent Achilles tendon injury.

"I think he was tentative Saturday night, but some of that comes from getting up there and there's no place to go," Robinson said.

"He was searching for where to run. He'd come back and say, 'What did I do, did I miss the hole?' From where I was standing, I didn't want to lie, I didn't see a hole. Some games there are not a lot of holes. We need to push the pile. What he needs to improve on is if there's no hole, knock 'em down and fight for two yards.

"He wasn't able to knock them back and turn a one-yard gain into four yards. Our one-yard gains were one-yard gains."

Last season, Washington never hit his stride, sitting out the first three games because of a suspension and finishing with only 370 yards.

LaVale Woods became USC's leading rusher, with 601 yards. But the arrivals of MacKenzie and Papadakis have pushed Woods out of the tailback rotation and into the No. 2 fullback position. He didn't get a carry Saturday, but he's waiting for his next chance.

"I think it'll happen," Woods said. "I'm not going to force the issue. I'm going to do what's asked of me right now.

"If I would have been in there against Florida State, I don't think there would have been any difference. They came pretty hard and kind of rattled us. Delon and Malaefou had a hell of a job running in there, and Petros Papadakis, he's run hard all camp.

"Delon took a lot of criticism after the game that I feel was undeserved. It would have been hard for anybody to run. We've got three good runners. People have to be patient."

As much as USC has always liked to hang its reputation on the running game, there are times when it isn't going to be there. If the other team has an eight-man front, who's to say you should keep forcing the run? The Florida State game was one that was contested mostly in the air--USC held the Seminoles to 89 yards rushing.

At some point, though, running the ball has to be a legitimate option.

"We know what we can do," tackle Ken Bowen said. "We can't have numbers like we did against Florida State. We set a goal every game of having one back get 100 yards or the team getting 200."

Bowen says the line will be better against Washington State. So does Washington State Coach Mike Price.

"I don't think that game is very indicative of what that offensive line can do," he said. "They're going to start blocking better. That Florida State defense is very, very good."

He doesn't have to tell Bowen that.

"When we play Washington State, we have to improve on how we finish our blocks," he said. "Get on a guy and make sure he doesn't get back up and make the tackle. That's what Florida State was doing. Florida State was the fastest defense I ever played against."

USC would just as soon put the Seminoles and a disappointing rushing performance behind.

"Disappointing would be if it was the last game of the year," Jackson said. "I think we have the ingredients to fix the problem."

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