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Trojans Are Bracing for a Wildcat Strike

College football: Loss to Arizona last season started USC on a five-game slide, a memory that still haunts the team.

October 07, 2000|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The wheels fell off the USC football team right about this point last season.

It was early October 1999, the Trojans had a 3-1 record after some close victories and a tough defeat on the road. Their next game, against Arizona, would be the first misstep on the path to a five-game losing streak.

The circumstances are eerily similar--the time of year, the record, almost all of it--as Arizona comes to the Coliseum today. And the Trojan players are well aware.

"This is a really crucial point in the season," tackle Brent McCaffrey said. "We have got to make a statement right now."

McCaffrey and others on the team insist this time will be different, if only because quarterback Carson Palmer is healthy and so, it appears, is team morale.

So far, there have been no signs of last season's dissension. Instead, USC practiced unusually hard this week after several veterans called a players-only meeting.

"It's been senior leadership like I've never seen," Palmer said. "It's all about the team."

But this team has performed poorly of late. The loss to Oregon State last Saturday had all the telltale signs: A sluggish start. Costly turnovers and penalties. Questionable decisions--and sometimes indecision--on the part of the coaching staff.

The Trojans cannot afford a repeat performance, not against an opponent that has an identical 3-1 record but, unlike USC, appears to be improving each week.

Of particular concern is Arizona's flex defense, which has limited opponents to nine points a game. In last season's 31-24 defeat, USC appeared lost against the scheme, rushing for minus-20 yards.

"It was my first experience with the flex and it was a very humbling experience," Coach Paul Hackett said. "I feel like we learned some things from last year."

The Trojans hope to improve greatly on last season's rushing effort even with tailbacks Sultan McCullough and Petros Papadakis coming off injuries. Running the ball would be the best way to neutralize Arizona defensive ends Joe Tafoya and Idris Haroon.

This season, Tafoya has twice sacked the quarterback and caused fumbles that were returned for touchdowns.

The Wildcats also want to hurry Palmer into an interception like the one he threw at the Oregon State goal line. They pride themselves on being especially tough in the red zone, which means USC must either execute or hope that David Newbury finds a way to kick the ball between the uprights.

"We have the ability," tackle Faaesea Mailo said. "It all depends on the commitment of the players."

The USC defense is feeling similarly challenged. This unit was supposed to be dominating, creating turnovers and good field position, giving the young offense time to mature.

Instead, the Trojans gave up large chunks of yardage on the ground against Colorado and Oregon State. The secondary was stung by San Jose State's passing attack.

"I'd be licking my chops if I was playing our defense right now," Hackett said.

Arizona isn't so sure. Quarterback Ortege Jenkins expects a stronger performance than the one he watched on videotape of the Oregon State game.

"You know the 'SC defense is for real," he said. "They're really fast and they make guys turn the ball over. They know how to play."

The Wildcats, meanwhile, have been finding their way slowly on offense, playing conservatively, playing musical chairs with a banged-up line. In last week's victory over Stanford, they relied on points off turnovers and the power running of tailback Clarence Farmer.

A physical, straight-ahead game might suit USC's defensive front seven, which struggled the last two weeks against faster-paced spread offenses.

But the Wildcats have a wild card in Jenkins and his ability to make big plays, so the USC secondary expects to be tested.

"What we have to do is play with better technique," cornerback Kris Richard said. "We have to do what we're supposed to do."

Moreover, the USC players know they must take advantage of playing at home instead of in the desert heat, as was the case last season. They must cut down on mistakes and show intensity from the opening kickoff.

If not, they face repeating some bad history.

"We cannot let it get away from us," Papadakis said. "I don't want to be a part of that again and nobody else on this team does."

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