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NO. 3 USC VS. OREGON STATE Saturday at Corvallis, Ore.,
12:30 p.m., FSN Prime Ticket

Turning down the pressure

Trojans may be 6-0, but their inability to get sacks and create turnovers is causing concern

October 27, 2006|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

A few hours before Saturday's kickoff at Oregon State, while still outfitted in their team-issued warmup suits, USC's defensive linemen will separate from teammates and congregate at midfield.

The brief meeting is a game-day ritual, a time to briefly bond and state goals against a specific opponent.

Stop the run is one staple, getting sacks another.

When they are done, the linemen join hands high above their heads and adjourn to the locker room with a simple slogan voiced in unison:

"Rushmen!"

Through six games, the defensive line hardly has lived up to its moniker. In six games the unbeaten Trojans have only nine sacks -- 20 fewer than Pacific 10 Conference leader Washington State (which has 29 in eight games) and only two more than winless Stanford.

Three years after the school's sports information office pumped the 2003 defensive line as "Wild Bunch II," this season's unit has statistically been a mild bunch.

Nose tackle Sedrick Ellis and tackle Chris Barrett are the only defensive linemen who have recorded sacks. Ellis has 1.5, Barrett one.

The linemen have heard whispers from fans and read bold criticism on Internet message boards.

"I think it's been way overstated," said Ellis, who sat out three games because of a knee injury. "We've been playing good games against good teams. Good teams make plays against you. It's just how you fight through those plays and make plays of your own."

Said Barrett: "We're getting there, we're just not converting. As soon as we get it done everything will be over."

The dearth of sacks has mirrored the Trojans' downturn in turnover margin, a statistical category that Coach Pete Carroll values more than any other besides victories.

During training camp, USC scrapped its traditional 4-3 defensive alignment and adopted a hybrid 3-4 scheme to put more of its talented linebackers on the field.

Sophomore Brian Cushing, who has lined up along the line of scrimmage, has six tackles for losses but only one sack.

Carroll, however, said the 3-4 is not to blame for fewer turnovers and sacks.

"I don't think it has anything to do with it," he said. "If it did, I'd switch it."

No player has been more frustrated than junior end Lawrence Jackson, who had 10 sacks last season and passed up a chance to turn pro.

The 6-foot-5, 265-pound Jackson missed part of spring practice because of a thigh bruise and several weeks of training camp because of a groin strain. The player nicknamed "LoJack" has thus far been unable to lock on to quarterbacks.

He does not have a sack.

"It's frustrating, depressing, whatever you want to call it," Jackson said. "As a defensive end, that's how you're graded, that's how you're judged: Sacks."

In USC's last game against Arizona State, Jackson narrowly missed at least two sacks.

With an open date last week, he sought counsel from coaches and also phoned former USC All-American Kenechi Udeze, now with the Minnesota Vikings, and Michael Strahan of the New York Giants.

"They all said the same thing: stay focused, keep doing the things that you do and they'll come," said Jackson, who has not recorded a sack since getting three last December against UCLA.

Jackson says he knows that UCLA's Justin Hickman leads the conference with 10.5 sacks. Washington State's Mkristo Bruce has 10.

Bruce, however, got five sacks against Stanford, which could bode well for Jackson and his linemates.

On Saturday, they face an Oregon State team that has given up 17 sacks. Stanford, which has given up a conference-worst 35 sacks in eight games, is up after that.

In preparation for those two opponents, and four other tough games down the stretch, USC spent its off week evaluating and making adjustments in several areas. Improving the pass rush was among the top priorities.

"We had a good week of ironing out some things and honing in on our best pass rushers and letting them have an opportunity," said defensive coordinator Nick Holt, who also oversees the defensive line.

Sophomore Kyle Moore and juniors Jeff Schweiger and Alex Morrow were the main beneficiaries.

"I feel I can make a difference," said the 6-foot-6 Moore. "I know I can get a little more pressure. I can get to the quarterback."

Carroll, Holt and the defensive linemen said they would mix combinations against Oregon State with hopes of creating a snowball effect.

A big game against Oregon State could get that ball rolling.

"That day is coming," Barrett said. "It's coming."

gary.klein@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

There's no rush

Five of USC's nine quarterback sacks came against Arizona:

Result Sacks

USC 28, Arizona State 21...2

USC 26, Washington 20...0

USC 28, at Washington State 22...0

USC 20, at Arizona 3...5

USC 28, Nebraska 10...1

USC 50, at Arkansas 14...1

Source: USC

*

Less is not more

USC last season was first in the Pacific 10 in turnovers forced and fifth in quarterback sacks a game. This year, the Trojans are at or near the bottom of the conference in both defensive categories.

TURNOVERS FORCED

*--* G Fum Int Tot 1. California 8 5 18 23 2. Washington St. 8 11 10 21 3. UCLA 7 9 8 17 3. Oregon St. 7 8 9 17 5. Arizona St. 7 8 8 16 6. Arizona 8 8 5 13 7. Oregon 7 5 6 11 7. Stanford 8 7 4 11 9. USC 6 5 5 10 9. Washington 8 2 8 10

*--*

*

TEAM SACKS

*--* G Sacks Avg./Gm 1. Oregon St. 7 26 3.71 2. Wash. St. 8 29 3.63 3. Ariz. St. 7 23 3.29 3. UCLA 7 23 3.29 5. California 8 18 2.25 6. Oregon 7 15 2.14 7. Wash. 8 14 1.75 8. USC 6 9 1.50 9. Arizona 8 11 1.38 10. Stanford 8 7 0.88

*--*

Sources: Pacific 10 Conference and Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles Times

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