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Defense Is Solid Despite Need to Reshuffle

Four first-time starters contribute and offer evidence that the unit has plenty of depth and talent this season.

September 17, 2006|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

Barely three months out of high school, starting his first college game before a standing-room-only stadium and a national television audience, Taylor Mays had every reason to feel jittery.

"Bubble-gut," he said. "I expected that."

The freshman free safety had been shoved into the USC lineup because of an injury to junior Josh Pinkard. His defensive backfield mate, strong safety Kevin Ellison, offered a few words of advice.

"Just don't panic," Ellison told him.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Coliseum -- the 18-year-old found himself utterly relaxed. He played that way too, slipping a few times but otherwise holding his own with five tackles, second-best on the team.

"It was weird," he said. "I had fun."

The same could be said for the rest of the USC defense, which, despite putting four new starters onto the field, pretty much controlled No. 19 Nebraska in a 28-10 victory on Saturday night.

The Cornhuskers, who had averaged 541 yards a game on offense, managed only 211. Quarterback Zac Taylor mused: "I never got into a rhythm."

He was pestered by a USC defense that needed reshuffling because of early-season injuries. Rey Maualuga, a star in the making, took over at middle linebacker. Fili Moala got more action on the defensive line. Mays and cornerback Cary Harris got their first starts in the secondary.

"It's kind of hard to imagine we were four or five guys down," Coach Pete Carroll said. "I felt we were really in command early."

Maualuga deserved much of the credit. The sophomore had already established his reputation on the team, alternating with Oscar Lua, but had never started.

That was a key distinction to a young man who had struggled with off-the-field legal trouble and the death of his father last season. Despite his game experience, he worried about getting too worked up with his mother in the stands and thoughts of his dad.

"All he wanted me to do was start," Maualuga said. "It was an emotional game."

His coaches had reason to be confident.

"Rey has really matured," linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. said. "He really understands how to handle his emotions. He's been staying out of trouble and his game has gone to another level."

It showed with a team-high 11 tackles against Nebraska. Carroll said Maualuga followed advice about remaining poised, a mantra recited to all the new starters over the bye week.

"They've been hearing it for two weeks.... They don't have to do too much," Carroll said.

Moala chipped in with four tackles. Harris recovered a fumble.

It helped that Nebraska played its West Coast offense close to the vest on Saturday, almost invariably running on first down, strangely hesitant to open up with the pass.

"I was surprised by how they thought they wanted to play us," Carroll said.

The strategy took pressure off Mays in the secondary. He was upset about one play in the third quarter, shifting too slowly to cover the seam route on a Cornhuskers completion.

It wasn't enough of a glitch to spoil a thoroughly -- and surprisingly -- enjoyable evening.

"This was one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "I'd say it went well."

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