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No Mistaking It: USC Has Issues

Uneven play, notably on special teams, raises concern, especially with Notre Dame up next.

October 09, 2005|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

Barely an hour had passed since Matt Leinart had guided USC to a 42-21 victory over Arizona and, already, the quarterback was talking about getting back to work.

"We'll watch film on Monday," he said, standing in front of his locker. "Correct the mistakes."

Such are the pressures of being undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the nation. The Trojans feel as if they must continually improve.

Especially at this point in the season, with a big game looming in South Bend, Ind., next Saturday.

"We're already thinking about Notre Dame," he said.

Even as they prepared to face struggling Arizona, a heavy underdog, in search of their 27th consecutive victory, the Trojans came into this weekend eager to address what Coach Pete Carroll called "problems and issues."

A few too many penalties. Not enough special teams. A propensity to start slowly.

Those yellow flags were at the top of Carroll's to-do list. The offensive line, in particular, had suffered with false starts in loud stadiums at Oregon and Arizona State.

Playing in the friendlier confines of the Coliseum, tackle Winston Justice was called twice for holding but, overall, the Trojans committed only six penalties -- about half of what they had drawn in each of the previous two games -- for 60 yards.

"That's better," Carroll said.

Special teams play was not as encouraging.

Injuries to the defense have forced USC to shift less-experienced players onto its kickoff coverage squad.

The Trojans put in extra practice last week, stressing that players stay in their lanes, but Arizona returned five kickoffs for 159 yards. In the third quarter, Syndric Steptoe went 76 yards to set up a touchdown that kept the Wildcats close, 28-21.

Sam Anno, a USC special teams assistant, figured Notre Dame was watching.

"Those guys have to be going 'yee-haw,' " Anno said. "We have just got to do a better job at this."

The third issue involved starting slowly, and that one got mixed grades.

On USC's first play from scrimmage, Leinart passed 34 yards to Steve Smith, the start of a 96-yard drive that resulted in a quick touchdown.

But a fumble and an interception ended two subsequent drives and USC led only 14-7 after two quarters.

Some of the players expressed frustration. "We kept putting ourselves in a hole," safety Scott Ware said. Yet the Trojan offense piled up 321 yards by halftime.

"USC is tough to stop," Arizona Coach Mike Stoops said. "They're the most talented team we'll play."

Carroll talked about expectations placed on his team, fans and the media wanting USC to win by big margins.

"The problem is, we score 70 and 60 points, then 42 isn't enough," he said. "You don't win every game by everything-to-nothing."

Certainly there were plenty of good things to take away from this victory.

Running backs LenDale White and Reggie Bush gained more than 100 yards each for the third straight game -- a school record. Leinart finished with 360 yards passing and two of his receivers, Smith and Dwayne Jarrett, had more than 100 yards receiving.

Even with the secondary giving up big plays -- uncharacteristic for Carroll's defensive backs -- USC outgained Arizona by a whopping 724 yards to 245.

Carroll has described this season as a continuing process, his team improving game by game.

Barely an hour after dispatching Arizona, the players were ready to get back at it.

"We're always going to have something to work on," Ware said. "But we've really got to do it before Notre Dame."

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