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NO.1 USC 31, STANFORD 28 | Chris Dufresne / ON COLLEGE

A Real Scheme Come True

At Least Trojans Don't Need to Attend Finishing School

September 26, 2004|Chris Dufresne ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

PALO ALTO — USC proved again Saturday it knows how to finish a game, but just once we'd like to see the Trojans know how to start one.

Nearly one year to the day after the Trojans came north and lost their conference opener at California, the Trojans came north and had to scramble to beat a Stanford team that may have wanted to win more but simply didn't have the talent to win it.

No. 1 USC escaped with victory, 31-28, but it does not escape scrutiny.

There's a pattern developing with this team that has nothing to do with a down-and-out.

The Trojans know they are better than everyone they play and figure it's only a matter of time before the other team figures it out too.

So they swagger onto opposing fields to the drum thumps of their marching band and soak up the sights and sounds before getting to work.

Unfortunately, these siestas can often drag into the second half.

Saturday, USC trailed by 11 at the half against Stanford and didn't regain the lead until LenDale White, on a two-yard burst, scored the game-winning touchdown with 6:15 left.

You could say that's cutting it a bit close.

"We're a big finishing team," said Trojan receiver Steve Smith, who had a monster game with eight catches for 153 yards. "But we've got to have that finish in the beginning."

Yogi Berra could not have said it better.

Remember that opener against Virginia Tech, when the Trojans trailed 10-7 into the second half before Reggie Bush came to the rescue?

Remember last week, when USC held only a 7-3 lead late in the second quarter at Brigham Young before Bush bailed them out again?

It was basically the same old yarn at the Farm.

You say USC had a 10-0 lead?

True enough, although the first Trojan field goal should have been a touchdown (tight end Alex Holmes dropped a pass just short of the end zone) and the first Trojan touchdown was set up by Kevin Arbet's 66-yard interception return.

Stanford then scored 21 unanswered points.

Then, just before the half, USC gave up an inexcusable touchdown when tailback J.R. Lemon, essentially trying to run out the clock, broke through the Trojan line and raced 82 yards to put Stanford up, 28-17.

"It was pretty amazing," defensive lineman Shaun Cody said. "But we took it as a freak play that they broke on us."

The Trojans gathered themselves in the locker room.

Smith, the receiver, said he was so antsy he couldn't sit still.

"Honestly, I was a little bit scared," he would say later.

The Trojans, though, found their footing and pitched a second-half shutout, 14-0.

USC's defense, which allowed the Stanford offense to dink-and-dunk its way for 291 first-half yards, held the Cardinal to 36 in the second.

Part of it was USC getting more aggressive with blitzes on defense and part of it was Stanford getting more conservative as it seemingly tried to nurse a lead.

USC apparently still doesn't quite get what being No. 1 means.

It means teams such as Stanford will leave their innards on the field for the chance to knock off No. 1.

"It's why we work out at 7 a.m. in the off-season and work so hard to beat teams like this," Stanford quarterback Trent Edwards said afterward. "To not do it, it kind of rips your heart out."

Edwards, a talented redshirt sophomore from Los Gatos, sliced-and-diced the Trojans in the first half and finished with 23 completions in 35 attempts for 182 yards.

Edwards also rushed for 31 yards and got up after every shot the Trojans put on him.

Taking down USC has long been on Edwards' to-do list. He almost signed at UCLA before deciding on Stanford, where he appears well on his way to becoming a star.

Edwards, however, was not satisfied simply to have made a game of it.

"It's tough to see the positive in a game like this when you work so hard and you can't close the door," he said.

Cardinal receiver Evan Moore, who finished with five catches for 47 yards and a touchdown, cringed at the thought of students telling him losing to No. 1 was all right because the Cardinal kept the score closer than expected.

"Well," Moore huffed, "it's not all right."

You wonder what lessons the Trojans will learn.

They obviously need to tighten screws and batten down hatches.

God forbid Reggie Bush catches a flu bug and can't make a spectacular play just when the Trojans need it.

What if he stubs his toe on a coffee table?

Bottom line is the Trojans have more talent than the New York Yankees, and most weeks that's going to be plenty.

"You've got to pull out victories like this," Cody said.

Maybe these Trojans will keep us guessing all year. Maybe they are good enough to win any way they want, and what the opposing team wants is of no consequence.

Smith, the Trojan receiver, said he read in the papers last week about a Stanford senior who said of the USC game, "This is the game of my life."

For No. 1, apparently, Saturday was only the biggest game this week.

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