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National Stage for Trojans

College football: No. 20 USC opens season tonight against Auburn with prime-time pressure to produce.

September 02, 2002|GARY KLEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Returning USC to national prominence was one of Coach Pete Carroll's primary goals when he was hired before the 2001 season.

The nation, and Trojan fans expecting improvement over last season's 6-6 finish, will gauge Carroll's progress tonight when the No. 20 Trojans play Auburn in a prime-time opener at the Coliseum.

It might not be Monday Night Football in the traditional NFL sense, but Carroll and his players intend to shine in the spotlight.

"For this one night, they can live the dream a little bit," said Carroll, who was an NFL head coach for four seasons and an assistant for 12.

USC quarterback Carson Palmer expects an eventful evening. The fifth-year senior, who is on pace to become the school's all-time leader in passing yards, said the Trojans must ignore distractions and concentrate on execution after three weeks of training camp.

"You have to control your adrenaline a little bit because it seems like it's been so long since you last played," Palmer said. "You can't worry about all the hype, Monday night football, a national television audience and all that.

"You just need to focus on what you need to do."

For the Trojan offense, that means establishing a rushing attack to complement offensive coordinator Norm Chow's multiple-set passing scheme.

Senior transfer Justin Fargas will not play because of a hamstring strain, so senior tailbacks Malaefou MacKenzie and Sultan McCullough will get the majority of carries. They will run behind a mostly experienced line determined to erase memories of last season's embarrassing 87.7-yard rushing average.

"We're going to be better," junior tackle Eric Torres said.

"We worked hard in the off-season, and we know the O-line has to come through."

Senior Kareem Kelly and junior Keary Colbert are veteran receivers with speed. Mike Williams, a 6-foot-5 freshman who will back up Kelly, also is a playmaker.

Senior kicker David Davis made 15 of 18 field-goal attempts last season.

"We need to put some drives together whether we get points out of them or not," Palmer said. "We need to move the chains and get some confidence going early."

Auburn, making its first trip to California since 1936, finished 7-5 overall and 5-3 in the Southeastern Conference last season. The Tigers upset Florida, which was ranked No. 1 at the time, but lost their chance for an SEC title by losing three of their last four conference games. Auburn finished its season with a 16-10 loss to North Carolina in the Peach Bowl.

Coach Tommy Tuberville, under pressure despite a 21-15 record over three seasons, brought in new coordinators this season. Bobby Petrino was the offensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Gene Chizik the defensive coordinator at Central Florida.

Running back Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, a 5-11, 202-pound sophomore, is Auburn's main threat on offense. Williams missed all or parts of six games last season because of injuries but still gained 614 yards and averaged 5.1 yards a carry.

Tuberville was cautious with Williams during training camp, holding him out of one scrimmage and giving him only a few carries in another.

"He's not an impressive player until you've watched him for about a quarter or tried to stop him if you're a defensive coordinator," Tuberville said. "What you see is what you get out of him every day. There is no cruise control."

Daniel Cobb, a sixth-year senior, beat out sophomore Jason Campbell to become the Tigers' starting quarterback, but Tuberville probably won't hesitate to turn to Campbell if Cobb struggles. Cobb passed for 1,165 yards and seven touchdowns in seven games last season. Campbell threw for 1,117 and four touchdowns in nine games.

Kicker Damon Duval is a preseason All-American who also punts.

Linebackers Karlos Dansby and Dontarrious Thomas and tackle DeMarco McNeil lead a defense that features typical SEC speed.

Carroll believes his players are ready for the challenge after a training camp characterized by numerous hamstring and foot problems. Auburn is the first opponent on a 12-game schedule regarded as one of the nation's toughest.

"We've worked extremely hard to get to this point," Carroll said. "Now I just want to see what happens, what we look like and see what kind of form or shape our team is going to take when we get out there."

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