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An Unforgettable Loss

After 70-17, Arkansas defensive coordinator wants another shot at Trojans

September 02, 2006|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

To suggest Arkansas' defense had a "deer in the highlights" look during last year's 70-17 loss to USC at the Coliseum is almost an insult to deer.

Reggie Herring, the first-year defensive coordinator responsible for implementing that plan, is thankful to be the second-year coordinator with a chance to redeem himself, his school and all hogs in heaven with tonight's rematch in Fayetteville, Ark.

They don't take kindly to woodshed games in Arkansas and there isn't a day that passes that Herring has not had flashbacks to that tackle-awful night in Los Angeles.

"It was like having your dog run over, your wife left you and your house burned down," Herring said with a sad, almost country-song Southern drawl. "I won't go as far as death, because life does go on. But it was about as bad as something can happen to you in life and still be breathing. I was emotionally and spiritually beaten down."

It wasn't Arkansas Pine Bluff at USC, it was \o7Arkansas\f7, home of Frank Broyles and Lance Alworth and a 1964 national championship -- a team from the cocksure Southeastern Conference.

The USC game was Herring's third as Arkansas' coordinator, and it basically was a hemorrhage, a face-plant in front of 90,411.

USC had the ball 92 seconds in the first quarter and scored four touchdowns in eight plays.

It was 28-7 before Herring could get his headset adjusted and 42-10 before an intermission that allowed USC to catch its breath and score on its first three second-half possessions.

"The game was over at halftime," Herring said. "Whatever they did after that was just practice."

Arkansas gave up a school-record 736 total yards; Trojans quarterback Matt Leinart threw for 381 yards and four touchdowns before leaving with time left in the third quarter; Reggie Bush scored the first two times he touched the ball.

Herring said he would call defensive plays, then watch while his players ran around as if they were lost in the Ozarks.

"It's probably the worst defensive football as I've ever seen on film," Herring said. "We choked. We flat got stage fright."

Arkansas flew home right after the game and didn't get back to Fayetteville until sunrise.

Morning had broken on a broken program -- or so everyone thought.

After giving up an average of 494 yards in its first three games, Arkansas' defense gave up an average of 284.9 in its last 11 games and ended up a respectable 34th nationally in total defense.

It held 10-win Alabama to 24 points and Louisiana State to 19.

But that's not what anyone remembers.

That's why, when a 4-7 season ended last Nov. 25, all thoughts turned to exacting revenge against USC. The Razorbacks, for better or worse, lost only two defensive starters from the squad that gave up 70 to USC.

"You can't get kicked any harder, any lower than what USC did to us," Herring said. "It was the worst defeat in my life. The worst job I've ever seen coaching or playing. It's a game I don't think any player or coach will ever forget. We had to carry that with us all year.... I'm glad we've got them on our schedule. We've got to face our demons. We can't run and hide."

Herring takes his defense seriously. He was a three-year starter at linebacker for Florida State in the late 1970s before starting his coaching career as a graduate assistant under Jimmy Johnson at Oklahoma State in 1981. He coached at Auburn under Pat Dye and made stops at Texas Christian, Clemson, the Houston Texans and at North Carolina State.

He knows you don't get many nonconference do-overs in college football and you had better take advantage. And, as bad as last year's defeat was, he says it could have been worse.

"It would be more devastating emotionally as coaches and players if we weren't ever playing them again," Herring said.

The Razorbacks were piglets in 2005, a team that played 17 true freshmen.

Herring says he thinks his defense, led by senior linebacker Sam Olajubutu, has come a long way since last September.

"How much improvement we made, we'll find out," Herring said. "It might be enough. It might not. We won't find out until we face our demons."

Leinart and Bush have moved on to the NFL, so no way USC will be just as good, right?

"I'm sure they think they're going to roll in there, put a spanking on us, have their way," Herring said. "And they ought to, if they go by the film of what they've seen. But I'd be very disappointed if the kids don't respond this year."

Herring, frankly, is tired of talking about it.

"We need to get this thing played and get on with our lives," he said. "Really, emotionally, that's where we're at.

"It's like you've been divorced for a year now and your wife still lives next door. It's been a constant reminder for a year now. Let's get it done once and for all."

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chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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