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Trojans Back for More

Loaded USC starts the season ranked No. 1 and hopes to end it in Orange Bowl

August 27, 2004|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

Back to back. Wire to wire.

Most USC players and coaches refuse to use those two short phrases.

But they acknowledge the possibilities.

When defending national champion USC opens its season Saturday against Virginia Tech, the top-ranked Trojans will be positioned for a run at history.

No school has won consecutive national titles since Nebraska in 1994 and 1995.

Florida State in 1999 was the only team to spend every week of the season atop the Associated Press college football poll.

"Hopefully, we keep our minds set that we're just a normal team and not trying to do something out of the ordinary," senior linebacker Matt Grootegoed said.

USC's schedule, however, appears to be set up perfectly for a run at an unbeaten season.

After playing Virginia Tech in the Black Coaches Assn. Football Classic at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., the Trojans have a bye before playing Colorado State at the Coliseum, where they have won 15 consecutive games.

USC then goes on the road to play at Brigham Young and Stanford before another bye that precedes what is generally regarded as their toughest game: an Oct. 9 matchup against California at the Coliseum.

The Trojans play Arizona and Washington at home, then travel to the Northwest on consecutive weekends to play at Washington State and Oregon State.

USC returns home to play Arizona, then has another bye before playing Notre Dame at the Coliseum.

The Trojans finish their schedule against UCLA at the Rose Bowl and hope to conclude their campaign with an appearance in the Orange Bowl, this season's bowl championship series title game.

"We're up for the challenge," sophomore tailback Reggie Bush said. "We can't look ahead, but we know what's out there."

A position-by-position look at the Trojans:

*

Quarterback

Matt Leinart passed for 3,556 yards and 38 touchdowns last season en route to a sixth-place finish in balloting for the Heisman Trophy. The junior left-hander seems poised for another outstanding season, as long as his chronically sore left elbow and a young offensive line hold up.

Sophomore John David Booty is No. 2 on the depth chart and Leinart's heir apparent. In USC's best-case scenario, Leinart remains sound and Booty takes a redshirt season.

Senior Brandon Hance finally appears to be at full strength and probably will be the first quarterback used if Leinart is injured or unexpectedly falters.

Senior Matt Cassel, junior Billy Hart, redshirt freshman Michael McDonald and freshman Rocky Hinds also are on the roster.

*

Running Back

Junior Hershel Dennis, who started every game and gained 661 yards last season, has been suspended indefinitely for violating team rules.

That means more opportunities for sophomores LenDale White and Reggie Bush, a one-two punch of power and speed. White rushed for a team-best 754 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. Bush, who also will line up as a receiver, ran for 521 yards and three touchdowns and caught four touchdown passes.

Like Bush, redshirt freshman Desmond Reed will be used in multiple ways.

Junior Brandon Hancock is recovering from off-season knee surgery, so senior Lee Webb will start at fullback. Junior David Kirtman, who had several clutch receptions last season, is Webb's backup.

*

Tight End

Senior Alex Holmes and junior Dominique Byrd are a dynamic combination when both are sound.

Holmes started in 2002 and is eager to play after sitting out last season because of a back injury. Byrd is recovering from a broken kneecap but is expected back by the fourth or fifth game.

Sophomore Nick Vanderboom earned a scholarship with hard work during training camp and could play a lot. Freshman Fred Davis recently moved from wide receiver to tight end.

*

Wide Receiver

Without Mike Williams, who was ruled ineligible by the NCAA, the receiving corps is largely unproven.

Sophomore Steve Smith, who caught 17 passes last season, replaces Keary Colbert at flanker.

Sophomore Chris McFoy and freshman Dwayne Jarrett will replace Williams. Junior William Buchanon is a deep threat, and junior Greig Carlson is a sure-handed option on shorter routes.

*

Offensive Line

The Trojans lost four starters from last season's unit that helped revitalize the running game and protected Leinart from serious injury.

Junior college transfer Taitusi Lutui will start at right tackle and protect Leinart's blind side. Sophomore Fred Matua returns at right guard, and sophomore Ryan Kalil is the center. Senior John Drake is the left guard and will play alongside redshirt freshman tackle Sam Baker.

Freshman center Jeff Byers, senior guard Travis Watkins and sophomore tackle Kyle Williams are among those providing depth.

*

Defensive Line

The Trojans lost ends Kenechi Udeze and Omar Nazel, but seniors Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson might be the best tackles in the country. Last season, Cody had 10 1/2 tackles for losses, Patterson 13 1/2 .

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