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Fargas Has USC in the Running

October 27, 2002|Rob Fernas | Times Staff Writer

EUGENE, Ore. — Justin Fargas finally showed Saturday what all the fuss was about.

Making his first start for USC, a move that caught some of his teammates off guard, Fargas lived up to the promise that has gone largely unfulfilled during an injury-plagued college career.

Coach Pete Carroll played a hunch by starting the hard-running Fargas, and the senior tailback came through by rushing for a career-best 139 yards and a touchdown in 27 carries to help USC trample Oregon, 44-33, in a Pacific 10 Conference game at Autzen Stadium.

"It felt really good to get out here and find a rhythm," Fargas said. "The best thing is that we won. It's been a long time coming."

That was true for USC, which ended a four-game losing streak to Oregon, and for Fargas, whose career has been noteworthy for all the wrong reasons.

Surgeries outnumbered touchdowns. Disappointment outweighed success. His exploits as an All-American running back at Sherman Oaks Notre Dame High were little more than a hazy, distant memory.

He erased it all with a performance that was his biggest game since his freshman year at Michigan in 1998.

"Everything that has happened in the past, the bumps in the road, this takes care of all that," Fargas said. "Everything happens for a reason, and I know all that happened for this moment, so we could get this victory."

Coaches told Fargas on Tuesday that he would start in place of senior Sultan McCullough, who had gotten most of the carries in the previous two games but had only two carries Saturday.

"It was a gut feeling," Carroll said. "We wanted to come up here and run real hard against a tough rushing defense. I wanted to make sure we were falling forward and getting every yard we could, and I knew that Justin would bring us that style."

News of the switch was kept from most of the Trojans, Carroll said, so it wouldn't become a distraction. Freshman offensive tackle Winston Justice said he didn't know Fargas was starting until the tailback ran out for USC's first play from scrimmage.

Justice was well aware of the switch by the time Fargas took a pitch from quarterback Carson Palmer and ran around the right side, where Justice anchors the line, for a 15-yard touchdown midway through the third quarter to give the Trojans a 27-19 lead.

"I have a real confident feeling when Justin is back there," Justice said. "He runs the ball hard and fast."

Fargas broke off his biggest run of the day, a 33-yard gain to the Oregon 32, on USC's next possession to help set up a 16-yard scoring pass from Palmer to freshman receiver Mike Williams.

"He just lit it up," Carroll said of Fargas, who impressed coaches with his first touchdown as a Trojan the previous week on a 13-yard run in a 41-21 victory over Washington.

Saturday was Fargas' best rushing performance since he gained 120 yards in 31 carries in a Big Ten game against Northwestern in 1998.

But he was forced to redshirt during the 1999 season while recovering from three surgeries to repair a broken right leg. Two titanium rods and 12 screws were implanted in his leg in the first surgery, then four months later -- when the leg wasn't healing properly -- doctors re-broke the leg and inserted two metal plates. A third surgery was performed to repair tendons in his right big toe.

Fargas started the 2000 season as a backup running back for Michigan, then asked to move to safety after he became frustrated. After the season, he transferred to USC and underwent ligament surgery to straighten his right big toe.

"I never lost faith," Fargas said. "You just have to keep moving forward. And through the grace of God, I've been able to come to this moment."

While sitting out last season in accordance with NCAA transfer rules, Fargas was often impressive serving as USC's scout team tailback. But in early games this season, he frequently was out of sync. The tailback job appeared to be won by McCullough after he rushed for 176 yards in 39 carries Oct. 12 against California.

Carroll hinted that USC's opponents have not seen the last of the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Fargas.

After a bye week, the Trojans resume play Nov. 9 at Stanford.

"The way it looks," Carroll said, "he'll be playing against Stanford."

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