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The Thick Red Line

USC has consistently dominated its opponents on defense, but a difficult test comes this week

October 15, 2003|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

USC's defensive linemen gather quietly at midfield for a pregame meeting long before other players begin warming up.

They congregate again at halftime, sweat-soaked, usually in a training room, most of the unit's starters tethered to IV drips.

The settings and verbiage change, but the primary conversation topics do not: Stop the running game. Be the best unit on the field. Sack the quarterback.

"We're pretty consistent that way," nose tackle Mike Patterson said.

Except for one major stumble against California, USC's defensive linemen have consistently dominated opponents this season. The defensive line is one of the main reasons the Trojans are 5-1 overall, 2-1 in the Pacific 10 Conference and once again ranked in the top five in the Associated Press poll.

Nicknamed "Wild Bunch II" by USC's sports information office as a tribute to the fabled Trojan defensive front of 1969, the four starters and their backups have shined collectively and individually.

Defensive end Kenechi Udeze, for example, was named the Pac-10's defensive player of the week after recording three sacks, forcing two fumbles and blocking a field goal attempt in the Trojans' 44-21 Pac-10 rout of Stanford on Saturday.

Patterson, tackle Shaun Cody and end Omar Nazel also have enjoyed standout moments for a line that has recorded 18.5 of the Trojans' conference-leading 24 sacks. USC ranks fifth nationally in rushing defense, giving up 73.7 yards a game.

"There isn't one guy to focus on," said Coach Pete Carroll, who is also the Trojans' defensive coordinator. "It's a real well-rounded group that's playing the best we've played all year."

USC's linemen plan to be in top form Saturday when the Trojans play Notre Dame at South Bend, Ind., in the 75th game between the rivals. Notre Dame is coming off a 20-14 victory over Pittsburgh, a game in which senior running back Julius Jones rushed for a school-record 262 yards.

"We're aware of what he did," said Udeze, a 6-foot-4, 285-pound junior who has a team-best eight tackles for losses, among them 5 1/2 sacks. "We know it's up to us to shut him down."

Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron did not flinch when his players received recognition and photo spreads in national preseason publications. Orgeron, who coached eight All-Americans at Miami in 1989-92, said Nazel's fiery attitude, Cody's savvy, Patterson's quickness and Udeze's strength combine to give the Trojans one of the best combinations in the nation.

Orgeron, however, said his linemen had yet to play a complete game.

"We still haven't dominated for 60 minutes," he said. "We still haven't had all four of them, plus the guys subbing, all hitting at the same time."

Orgeron would like nothing better than for it to happen at Notre Dame Stadium, where the Trojans have not won since 1997. His optimism is buoyed by the extended periods of excellence his players have achieved through six games.

In the opener on the road against Auburn, USC played a team that supposedly had one of the nation's deepest and most talented backfields. The Trojans limited Auburn to 43 rushing yards, recorded six sacks and won, 23-0.

The next week, USC sacked Brigham Young quarterback Matt Berry six times and pressured him into throwing three interceptions. Nazel, a 6-5, 245-pound senior, returned one of them 16 yards for a touchdown.

Quarterback Timmy Chang operated Hawaii's run-and-shoot offense from the shotgun and was sacked only twice. But the Trojans pressured him into two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown.

Then came the Trojans' trip to Cal, where the Trojans fell behind, 21-7, and eventually lost, 34-31, in triple overtime. Cal running back Adimchinobe Echemandu rushed for 147 yards in 34 carries as the Golden Bears ended the Trojans 11-game winning streak.

Echemandu also ended at 16 games the defense's streak of not allowing an individual to rush for more than 100 yards.

"The guy ran the rock on us," Cody said. "We had all that pub, and he ran for [nearly] 150 yards. That didn't feel too good."

The Trojans also surrendered a touchdown rushing for the first time in 23 quarters and did not consistently pressure Cal quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Reggie Robertson.

"That game kind of made us realize where we were," said Patterson, a 6-foot, 285-pound junior. "We had to crank everything down after that and get back to where we started."

Cody rebounded against Arizona State and played his best game since returning from last season's knee surgery. The 6-4, 285-pound junior had 2 1/2 of the Trojans' five sacks and helped stuff the Sun Devils' running game in the second half as USC scored 27 unanswered points for a 37-17 victory.

Udeze and Patterson helped USC dominate the first half against Stanford and the Trojans cruised to a victory that kept them in the hunt for the Rose Bowl, and possibly more.

Nazel said the defensive line was happy to be back on track. But with Notre Dame up next, he said the real work had just begun.

"It's time to turn it up another notch," he said..

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