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Trojans Have Always Lifted With Their Backs

Bush, White dominate running game these days; whether they top USC's legendary list is debatable.

October 07, 2005|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

John Robinson saw it on a press box television in Alabama.

Anthony Davis watched from a pizza parlor in Orange County.

And Marcus Allen paced the sideline at Sun Devil Stadium as it unfolded only a few yards away.

When USC put the ball in the hands of running backs Reggie Bush and LenDale White in the second half against Arizona State, it was that '70s show all over again.

"My God," Robinson recalled thinking. "They've gone back to our era!"

Allen exhorted Trojan players and coaches to pound the ball.

Davis, out of earshot hundreds of miles away, did the same.

"When you know it's coming and they still can't stop it, that's when you know you're making a statement," Davis said.

Bush and White, running behind a dominant offensive line, combined for 355 yards and four touchdowns and the Trojans overcame a 21-3 halftime deficit for a 38-28 victory.

The two juniors each rushed for more than 100 yards for the second consecutive game and remained on pace to become the first USC backs to run for more than 1,000 yards in the same season.

Their performances helped keep the unbeaten Trojans atop the national polls.

They also raised a question that has been percolating since last year: Are Bush and White the No. 1 backfield tandem in USC history?

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USC's tradition of great running backs extends beyond Heisman Trophy winners Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Charles White and Marcus Allen.

Mort Kaer in the 1920s, Frank Gifford in the late '40s and early '50s, Jon Arnett and C.R. Roberts in the mid-1950s, and Willie Brown and Ben Wilson in 1962 are just some of the players who predated the full implementation of coach John McKay's tailback-oriented attack.

Garrett and Simpson flourished in the system in '60s and Clarence Davis also was an All-American, but the '70s and the dawn of the '80s were the golden years at what became known as Tailback U.

Anthony Davis, Ricky Bell, White and Allen continued a line that tapered for more than two decades before Justin Fargas seemed to revive it in 2002. Bush and White arrived as precocious freshmen a year later.

Today, the Trojans alternate flashy Bush and indomitable White. Each has 57 carries. Bush has rushed for 491 yards, White 437, though they are rarely on the field at the same time in USC's multidimensional offense.

The philosophy is vastly different from the McKay and Robinson eras, when one back was anointed as the chosen one and carried the ball 30, sometimes 40, or in Bell's case, 51 times, in a game.

"We were going to wear you down with the run and knock you out," said Robinson, an assistant under McKay who began the first of two head coaching stints at USC in 1976. "We weren't going to alternate. We were going to come at you with one guy. That lone guy took over."

Still, there were several dynamic backfield combinations. Among them:

* Anthony Davis and Sam Cunningham, 1972

Rod McNeill started the season as the Trojans' tailback but Davis, a sophomore, worked his way up the depth chart because of injuries. He made his first start in the eighth game, at Oregon, and never relinquished the spot, going on to become what a teammate once described as "the greatest player never to win the Heisman."

The 1972 Trojans, featuring players such as Davis, fullback Cunningham, tight end Charles Young, flanker Lynn Swann and linebacker Richard Wood, are regarded by many as the greatest team in college football history.

Davis rushed for 1,191 yards and scored 17 touchdowns. Cunningham, a senior, was used mostly as a blocker, but rushed for 349 yards and 13 touchdowns, including four in the 1973 Rose Bowl against Ohio State when he repeatedly dived over the pile into the end zone.

The usually soft-spoken Cunningham often told opponents what was coming next after he led the way for Davis.

"They'd get up with a little glaze in their eye and I'd say, 'We'll be right back, don't worry about it,' " Cunningham recalled, chuckling. "It was not being boastful. I was just telling the truth."

* Ricky Bell and Charles White, 1976

Bell, a senior who had been Davis' fullback in a potent 1974 backfield that also included Allen Carter, was the starter coming off a sensational 1975 season. White was a freshman who ascended to a backup role because of injuries to more experienced players.

Both, however, had dynamic seasons with fullbacks Mosi Tatupu and Dave Farmer clearing the way.

"You are talking about some extremely tough guys," said John Jackson, who coached running backs at USC from 1976 to 1981.

Bell ran for 1,433 yards and 14 touchdowns. He finished second to Pittsburgh's Tony Dorsett in Heisman voting despite nagging injuries that created numerous opportunities for White, who finished with 858 yards and 10 touchdowns.

With Bell nursing a hip injury, White rushed for 136 yards against Stanford. Bell also was injured on the first series of the Rose Bowl against Michigan and White ran for 114 yards in 32 carries.

Tatupu and Farmer combined for 705 yards.

* White and Lynn Cain, 1978

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