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Starting Spot in Line Is Interior Motive at USC

November 03, 2001|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the first weeks of the season, after a couple of close losses, the USC coaches were looking for ways to light a fire under their team. They wanted to challenge the starters, make them compete for their spots, but that simply wasn't possible in many places along a paper-thin roster.

An exception: The interior of the offensive line.

Starting about a month ago, three players--Lenny Vandermade, Faaesea Mailo and Norm Katnik--found themselves in a weekly struggle to grab two spots in the lineup. It didn't matter that Vandermade was coming off a freshman All-American season. Or that Mailo was a senior.

"It was a new thing for us," Mailo said. "It's frustrating at times, but you have to respond."

This week, the winners are Vandermade and Katnik, who will start at center and guard in today's homecoming game against Oregon State at the Coliseum. Though Mailo is odd man out, waiting to rotate into the game later, he sees value in the new system.

"There's no feeling of complacency," he said. "That has played a big part of why the offensive line has done better the last few weeks."

Signs of improvement emerged during the Oct. 6 game at Washington, when tailback Sultan McCullough ran for 132 yards. A week later, the Trojans sealed a victory over Arizona State with a pounding and uncharacteristic fourth-quarter drive.

But there remains plenty of room for improvement with an offense that has given up 23 sacks, more than any other in the Pacific 10 Conference, and has the worst rushing game with an average of only 88 yards. The run has been especially anemic since McCullough dropped out of the lineup with an abdominal strain.

The Trojans have an opportunity to improve those numbers against an Oregon State defense that surrenders a whopping 196 yards a game on the ground.

"We'll mix the game plan accordingly," USC Coach Pete Carroll said. "We like it better when we're running the football so we're going to take some shots at it."

So far this season, the Beavers have played a relatively straight-forward defense, not a lot of gimmicks, the cornerbacks giving some cushion. They want to make opponents gain a little at a time and, somewhere along the line, force a mistake. At least, that's the idea.

"The biggest thing we've done negatively on defense is give up the big run or the big pass," Oregon State Coach Dennis Erickson said. "We've got to stop that."

USC's spread offense is designed to take small bites, keep the chains moving, but the Trojans have rarely shown that kind of consistency. Too often, a dropped pass or false-start penalty forces them into third-and-long and the rhythm is shot. So last week's 41-34 victory over Arizona relied heavily on big plays from the defense.

Today, the 3-5 Trojans face the 3-4 Beavers whose offense dearly misses its receivers from last season--T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Chad Johnson and Robert Prescott. Quarterback Jonathan Smith has struggled in their absence and the effects have been felt in the running game, where Ken Simonton has seen his Heisman Trophy hopes evaporate, his production falling off by 50 yards a game from last season.

"It's not just Ken," Erickson said. "There are not as many places for him to run this year."

But Erickson's teams have a history of improving as the season progresses--as a college coach, his record in the month of November is 42-9-1. The Beavers have won two of their last three in part because receiver James Newson has emerged, catching eight passes for 112 yards against Arizona State, then eight more for a career-high 166 yards against California. That, in turn, has kept defenses honest.

"We have to try to keep people off our running game, which a lot of teams have done," Erickson said. "We have run the football a little bit better."

USC is looking for similar improvement, even with reserve tailbacks Sunny Byrd and Chris Howard filling in for McCullough. The onus is on the offensive line.

Vandermade says everything changed for him and his teammates last month when, in a surprising move before the Washington game, he lost his spot at center.

"It opened our eyes," he said. "I thought I would be starting no matter what."

To make matters worse, he was replaced by Katnik, his roommate and among his best friends on the team. Vandermade admits he was depressed at first, but he has regained his spot by responding with precisely the attitude his coaches had envisioned.

Now he is accustomed to battling for his spot in practice each day, waiting until Thursday or even Friday before learning the outcome.

"It's easy to pout and moan until you realize it gets nothing done," he said. "You've got to work to get back and that's good for everyone. It forces us to step up."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

On the Way

Although he's averaging only 77.7 yards per game this season, Oregon State running back Ken Simonton needs 194 yards to pass USC's Marcus Allen (1978-81) for second on the Pac-10 all-time rushing list. A look at his career numbers:

*--*

Season Carries Yards TDs 2001* 133 544 5 2000 284 1,559 19 1999 294 1,486 19 1998 224 1,028 13 Total 935 4,617 56

*--*

*--Through seven games

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