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USC Hopes to Say Bye to Its Winless Season

College football: Rested Trojans take their 0-2 record and 28 yards rushing per game to Berkeley.

September 24, 1997|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

People play football at USC to become a part of history. But not this kind of history.

Two games into the season, USC is woe and two--winless after two games. Only five USC teams in more than a century have been in this situation.

The last was in 1960, in John McKay's first season as coach. That team opened with losses to Oregon State, Texas Christian and Ohio State before finishing with a 4-6 record.

"We lost to Texas Christian? We were bad," said McKay, who needed an upset of UCLA to get an extension of his one-year contract. Two years later, he won the first of his four national championships.

"I don't remember it," said McKay, who splits his time between the Tampa Bay area and the California desert. "I probably don't want to remember it."

Only three USC teams have been 0-3, the fate the Trojans are bent on avoiding Saturday when they play California at Berkeley after two weeks to think about it, thanks to an open date last Saturday.

Pull out of it now, and USC can still think of itself as a decent team that played two top-25 teams early. Lose again, and Coach John Robinson's future will become the focal point of the season. Athletic Director Mike Garrett can say, "It's so early" only so long.

As bad as the numbers look--and nothing is more humbling than USC's 28-yard rushing average, the nation's worst--the Trojans have proceeded without any obvious panic attacks.

"I still feel this team is pretty confident," cornerback Daylon McCutcheon said. "It's a big difference from last year. I don't see finger-pointing, people blaming everyone else. I see people looking at themselves, saying, 'What can I do to make myself better?' "

There was talk of a players-only meeting, but there hasn't been one yet. As punter Jim Wren put it, "You can sit around and sing 'Kumbaya' and hold hands, or go on field trips. But until you start winning, none of that matters."

The Trojans are operating under the premise that they can fix their running game and reduce crucial penalties--that they are not that far from where they need to be after losing to Florida State and Washington State, each by a touchdown.

"We want to get a win, man," said LaVale Woods, who is poised to get the next turn to show if he can carry the load at tailback where Delon Washington has failed. "We're a good team. People outside might not think so, people watching the games. The thing is, we make ourselves lose. We've shot ourselves in the foot. We've got to fix our mistakes. If we do that, we'll win."

There's always the cross-town example of UCLA, which started 0-2 before routing Texas.

"I think the expectation was that Florida State was a big challenge and we did kind of rise to that," Robinson said. "The next week, we fell into a pattern, 'Well, we always beat Washington State. We'll beat them and we'll be rolling.' And we got that one stuck in our ear.

"Now we have to get this damn thing rolling."

Cal doesn't appear to be the easiest opponent to get rolling against.

The Bears upset USC last season, 22-15, and have beaten Houston and Oklahoma in their first two games, creating another historical footnote for the USC game: This will be only the second time in the 84-year history of the series that, going into the game, Cal is unbeaten and USC winless.

The only other time was in 1950, when an 0-1-1 USC team lost to a 3-0 Cal team, 13-7. USC finished with a 2-5-2 record.

The Trojans went into the Cal game without a win only one other time. In 1957, USC lost three games, then lost again to Cal on the way to a 0-5 start and a 1-9 season.

"The Cal game is obviously very important," Robinson said. "It looks to me, looking ahead, like we play eight more teams that are pretty good. A little of the luster is off Washington and Arizona State, so there probably isn't a great football team in our conference, but all eight are going to be OK.

"You can be down and still come back. I don't think anybody is going to be undefeated. We still have high aspirations, but we've got to get going."

It has been a couple of weeks since Robinson called the Washington State game a must-win after the season-opening loss to Florida State.

One loss later, what does that make Cal?

"A very must-win," offensive lineman Chris Brymer said. "I see Cal as being quite like Washington State. I see a lot of the Pac-10 teams as in the same category of team that we are.

"We just need to come out and do the things we've been coached to do. Penalties need to be cut out. That, I think, is a crucial part. Of course, the running game needs to be established. But we need to be in situations where we can run plays, and not looking at third and 30.

"A win is a win, whether you run or pass the ball."

Two losses are two losses too, and they haven't been easy to live with.

"A lot of people are getting criticized," Brymer said. "We've got to deal with it. I think we've been close. By no means is that to say we accept losing. But we're definitely still in the Rose Bowl race. The Rose Bowl is wide open, still."

USC had a wide-open week to work on its problems.

"If you're going to lose your first two, it's nice to have the third week to regroup," Robinson said. "We did a lot of extra blocking. I did some extra yelling."

Mostly, there was extra waiting for the first win.

"You get into your routine, into preparing for practice, into coaching and doing things that use up your time and and focus," Robinson said. "I think when you're driving on the freeway, though, that's when you say, 'I wish we were playing.' . . .

"I think our morale is very good. We worked very hard last week. We've got to get to 1-2, then 2-2, then 3-2. That's our goal."

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