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Rebuilding Blocks

New-look USC offensive line has quickly gone from a question mark to an exclamation point

September 22, 2004|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

USC amassed more than 1,000 yards in its last two games, but offensive coordinator Norm Chow has a problem.

With quarterback Matt Leinart in the hunt for the Heisman Trophy, Chow is not about to scale back top-ranked USC's passing attack.

But USC's running game has, once again, become all the rage at Tailback U. Sophomore tailbacks LenDale White and Reggie Bush are running behind a rebuilt line that matured faster than most anticipated.

So after helping USC produce 600 yards rushing in victories over Colorado State and Brigham Young, Trojan offensive linemen do not want any breaks -- like pass blocking.

"They take a lot of pride in that -- almost too much pride," Chow said Tuesday. "When I call a pass, they get mad at me."

Guard John Drake said, "We just try to go out there and earn respect and be part of the legacy of the offensive line at USC. We have a long way to go, but I can't complain about the start."

Neither can the running backs.

White, who rushed for a team-best 754 yards last season, has gained 311 yards in three games and is averaging 6.8 yards a carry. Bush has run for 235 yards and is averaging 6.7.

The Trojans rank 18th nationally in rushing, averaging 238 yards a game.

"I knew they would come together," White said of the line. "They're a hard-working bunch. They were here every morning at 6:30, working out, during the off-season. They are getting what they deserve."

USC linemen intend to keep their momentum going Saturday when USC plays at Stanford in the Pacific 10 Conference opener for both teams.

"We want to come out every week and establish ourselves as one of the strong points on this team," guard Fred Matua said.

The line has come a long way since the start of training camp, when it was regarded as one of the Trojans' major question marks.

Norm Katnik, Lenny Vandermade and All-American Jacob Rogers, stalwarts for the Trojans' Orange Bowl team in 2002 and co-national championship team last season, had completed their eligibility.

"Those guys had been here since we got here," said Chow, who was hired by Coach Pete Carroll before his first season in 2001. "Until this fall, we played with the same left tackle, left guard and center. You just kind of took those guys for granted."

Matua, a redshirt sophomore who started eight games last season, returned at right guard. Drake, a senior who started seven games at guard and tackle last season before breaking his ankle against UCLA, was installed at left guard.

Redshirt freshman Sam Baker replaced Rogers at left tackle, junior college transfer Taitusi Lutui replaced the suspended Winston Justice at right tackle and sophomore Ryan Kalil held off a challenge from freshman Jeff Byers in replacing Katnik at center.

In the opener against Virginia Tech, White and Bush combined for only 105 yards rushing in a 24-13 victory before more than 91,000 at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.

The game was an overwhelming sensory experience for the Trojans, especially Kalil, Baker and Lutui, all of whom made their first starts.

"It was exciting but also very tough because it was so loud in there," said Lutui, who has rotated with redshirt sophomore Kyle Williams. "After that game, we knew we had to communicate better."

Two weeks later, after working out some rough spots during a bye week, the line helped White run for three touchdowns and 124 of the Trojans' 322 yards rushing in a 49-0 rout of Colorado State.

Last week against BYU, USC rushed for 278 yards. The speedy, shifty Bush gained 124 yards and scored on a 66-yard run in the second quarter. White ran for 110 yards and displayed his power and speed on a 43-yard touchdown run in the fourth.

It was the first time since 1996 that two USC running backs had eclipsed 100 yards in the same game.

"Reggie's going to make two or three guys miss and LenDale is going to take two or three with him," Baker said. "Those guys are going to make big plays. If you give them an inch, they're gone."

Offensive line coach Tim Davis said his charges had been bolstered by the solid play of senior tight end Alex Holmes, who has helped the Trojans run effectively off the strong side. Practicing against the Trojan defense also has hastened the line's development.

"We have to block Coach Carroll's front and his blitzes and all his stuff every day," Davis said. "A lot of teams wouldn't do that with young guys, but I think you kind of have to sink or swim."

Kalil said Trojan linemen enjoyed protecting Leinart as much as clearing the way for running backs.

But he smiled when recounting a pass play that Chow called against BYU, after the Trojans had been running the ball for most of the drive.

"We're in the huddle and you have to suck it up and say, 'OK, run the play,' " Kalil said. "That's a cool aspect -- our line is to the point where we want to run the ball. We want it in our hands."

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