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Trojan Style: Adjust in Time

Ability of coaches to adapt at halftime has USC in the hunt for a national championship.

October 30, 2003|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

Cornerback Will Poole stood outside USC's dining hall in the evening darkness this week and gazed toward a second-floor window in nearby Heritage Hall.

Lights were on in the Trojan coaching staff's offices. They would remain so, as usual, well into the night.

"I don't know what they're doing up there in the brainstorm room -- they're like mad scientists," Poole said. "Whatever it is, it's working."

Coach Pete Carroll, offensive coordinator Norm Chow and the rest of the third-ranked Trojans' coaching staff will spend hours this week honing a game plan for Saturday's Pacific 10 Conference showdown against sixth-ranked Washington State.

But USC's success -- or failure -- could be tied in large part to the small adjustments ordered by Carroll and Chow once the game begins.

Carroll, who also serves as defensive coordinator, gathers information on his own, and from assistants, along the sideline. Chow calls plays and absorbs input while perched in a press box coaches' booth. With few exceptions, the veteran brain trust has reacted to opponents' strengths or weaknesses with the right moves at the right times during the last two seasons.

Last week against Washington, for example, Husky wide receiver Reggie Williams caught nine passes for 115 yards and a touchdown in the first half. After a short meeting with assistants at the break, Carroll adjusted his scheme and the Trojans shut down Williams in the second half.

Meanwhile, Chow orchestrated one-on-one situations between Washington linebackers and Trojan tailback Reggie Bush and fullback Brandon Hancock. The mismatches produced three second-half touchdown passes by quarterback Matt Leinart.

The result: a 43-23 Trojan victory that elevated USC to fourth in the bowl championship series standings.

"We probably adjusted more things in that game than in any game in a long time," Carroll said this week. "There were some cool little things that we did, and on almost every one of them we were a step ahead."

USC can take a major step toward the Rose Bowl or, possibly, the Sugar Bowl, with a victory over Washington State, which defeated the Trojans, 30-27, in overtime last year in Pullman.

Since that loss, USC has won 15 of 16 games and established itself as a team that dominates the second half. Postgame comments from Trojan players are regularly laced with glowing references to a change of alignment or a switch in emphasis ordered by the coaches.

"We're not doing anything spectacular on the field," said cornerback Ronald Nunn, who returned an interception for a touchdown and recovered a fumble against Washington. "We're just doing what they ask us to do."

Carroll and Chow rely heavily on other assistants for feedback during games.

"It's constant," quarterbacks coach Steve Sarkisian said. "Everybody sees different things."

The coaches, however, rarely, if ever, request input from players.

"Every receiver is always open, every running back always wants the ball and every lineman wants you running right over him," Chow said.

"The question I always ask is, 'What did you see?' Not what you thought you saw or what you thought about anything. What did you actually see, so we can make the adjustment off of that."

Ask Carroll and Chow when and why they make adjustments and their answers reflect their personalities and coaching styles. Carroll is kinetic, Chow calculating.

"We have done so much contingency planning that there's a lot of logic to where we go with things," Carroll said. "But the fun part is sitting there at halftime the other day and saying, 'Hey, if we do this ... '

"That's as much fun as I can get."

Said Chow: "You make adjustments as you recognize what the other side is doing. You just do the stuff that's appropriate."

Carroll, 52, credits longtime friend and colleague Monte Kiffin, defensive coordinator for the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, for influencing his decision-making process during games.

"You have to trust your upbringing," Carroll said. "You can't second-guess what you know and what's in that reservoir" of knowledge.

"I just wait till it feels right, and I go on impulse."

Although that method has helped Carroll produce 18 victories since the start of the 2002 season, Carroll said it worked against the Trojans two years ago in a 24-22 loss at Oregon, his third game as USC coach. The seventh-ranked Ducks won on a 32-yard field goal with 12 seconds left.

"I just went too far with it," he said. "I saw they did something, and there was a thing we could have done to adjust to it, and I did it. And we didn't need to.

"We stopped the play that they made. But I adjusted the coverage anyway because I didn't want it to happen again, and eventually they started running the ball somewhere else because of the adjustment we made. So I went, 'Oh, you jerk!' "

Carroll said the episode served as a reminder that sometimes the best fixes are ones not made.

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