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First Step's a Doozy

A loss in last year's Pac-10 opener damaged Trojans' BCS chances, and they want to avoid that pitfall today

September 25, 2004|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

PALO ALTO — Conference openers mark beginnings. But as USC found out last season, when it comes to the bowl championship series, they also can mean the end.

If not for its triple-overtime loss at California in its first Pacific 10 Conference game, USC might have finished the 2003 regular season unbeaten and played in the BCS title game for a chance to claim an undisputed national championship.

Top-ranked USC is back in the Bay Area today for a Pac-10 opener against unbeaten Stanford at Stanford Stadium. The Trojans, who won the Pac-10 title and a share of the national title last season, said they learned a hard lesson in Berkeley.

"If you lose that first one, you kind of fall off the road a little bit," senior fullback Lee Webb said. "That's why we need to get off to a good start."

USC (3-0), winner of 12 consecutive games, is on the road for the second consecutive week and the third time in four games. The Trojans followed a season-opening victory over Virginia Tech with victories over Mountain West Conference members Colorado State and Brigham Young.

"We had a lot to get accomplished before getting to this point," Coach Pete Carroll said. "We are pleased that we have made it here in pretty good shape physically."

USC, however, is not completely at full strength.

Tailback LenDale White rushed for 110 yards and a touchdown against BYU on a sprained ankle. He was inactive during several days of practice this week but is expected to play today. So is center Ryan Kalil, who suffered a stinger, a nerve injury, early in the week.

USC faces a 2-0 Stanford team that is experienced on defense and rapidly improving on offense.

The Cardinal, which finished 4-7 last season, defeated San Jose State in its opener, 43-3, and scored 37 unanswered points in defeating BYU, 37-10, on Sept. 11.

Stanford's switch from a 4-3 defensive scheme to a 3-4 has paid off. The Cardinal is fourth in the nation in scoring defense and fifth in turnover margin.

"The difference this year is the age of our guys," third-year Stanford Coach Buddy Teevens said. "We have more seniors on the defensive side of the ball, so there is maturity and a comfort level after having started for a number of years."

Stanford's offense also is improved.

Sophomore quarterback Trent Edwards passed for a career-best 297 yards and three touchdowns against BYU. He has completed 54% of his passes without an interception.

"He has emerged as our offensive line has emerged as well," Teevens said.

"So far, he has been making good decisions."

Edwards throws to a tall and athletic receiving corps.

Sophomore flanker Evan Moore, 6 feet 7, 235 pounds, and Mark Bradford, 6-2, 190, both play on the Cardinal basketball team. Moore, from Brea Olinda High, has eight receptions and has scored three touchdowns. Bradford, from L.A. Fremont High, has seven receptions. Each averages more than 16 yards a catch.

Tight end Alex Smith, a 6-5, 255-pound senior, has a team-high 10 receptions and has scored a touchdown.

USC shuffled its secondary this week, hoping to offset the Cardinal passing game.

Kevin Arbet, a sixth-year senior, is expected to start at cornerback in place of Ronald Nunn, who gave up a long touchdown pass against BYU. Carroll chose Arbet over redshirt sophomore Eric Wright because of experience.

"He's better equipped to handle different-style guys," Carroll said. "If you played a real young guy now, he'd have to figure it out as the game's going on."

Darnell Bing, who played as a reserve the last two games because of a shoulder injury, returns to the starting lineup at strong safety.

Meanwhile, USC quarterback Matt Leinart and Trojan receivers will go against a Stanford secondary that is among the most experienced in the conference.

"This is clearly the best group we've seen," Carroll said.

USC offensive lineman John Drake said the Trojans were ready to start their run for another conference title, and possibly much more.

"You can't look ahead, but everybody knows what's at stake, what we're playing for," Drake said. "If you want to get to where we want to go, you have to start this thing with a win. This game can be our first step."

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