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Trojans Not Taking Any Chances

Play-calling is a little more close to the vest, but offensive players feel upbeat after victory.

September 24, 2006|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

TUCSON — Let the big lineman tell it.

Peeling off a sweat-soaked uniform, unstrapping a brace from his knee, Ryan Kalil addresses the issue of the USC offense -- and occasional lack thereof -- in philosophical terms.

"Talk about struggle," the center says. "Where does the glory come from if there's no struggle?"

These are not the Trojans to which fans became accustomed in recent seasons, not a juggernaut averaging almost 600 yards and 49 points a game.

The 2006 edition is restocked with younger players alongside Kalil on the line, a new quarterback and a bevy of inexperienced runners. The difference could not have been plainer than in Saturday night's grind-it-out, 20-3 victory at Arizona.

Look at the plays that USC ran against a tough, aggressive Wildcat defense on first downs -- a lot of short runs and quick passes.

Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin said that last season's offense, so efficient, would gamble on first down knowing it could gain big yardage at any time. Right now, he said, "you don't want to take a shot and go back to second and 10."

Game circumstances also play a role.

When it became apparent that USC's defense was dominating Arizona -- and later, when star receiver Dwayne Jarrett suffered a sprained shoulder -- Kiffin said, "you obviously manage the game differently

So when the Trojans took possession on their eight-yard line with 3:38 remaining in the first half, they ran on four of the first five plays, sapping the clock and ultimately heading for the locker room with a 3-0 lead.

Throughout the night, there were times when linemen missed blocks and young backs missed their holes. Amid a noisy, sold-out stadium, the Trojans strained to make calls at the line of scrimmage.

Which gets back to Kalil's point. The mood among offensive players after the game was decidedly upbeat, despite the fact their third-ranked team had struggled to score on an unranked opponent.

Quarterback John David Booty completed enough passes and limited his mistakes sufficiently to produce a victory on the road.

For all the times that Arizona tacklers swarmed USC ballcarriers in the backfield, tailback Emmanuel Moody finished with 130 yards -- and no fumbles -- and the offense topped 200 yards on the ground.

"You've got to expect that," Moody said of getting hit for a loss. "You've got to trust the offensive line the next time you carry the ball."

Last week, after a 28-10 victory over No. 19 Nebraska, offensive line coach Pat Ruel had chastised his unit, quipping, "What running game?" He smiled after Arizona.

"It's a journey," he said. "I see a lot of improvement going on."

Arizona Coach Mike Stoops apparently agreed, coming up to Ruel after the game and saying: "You've got some really good young players."

It has been a trademark of Coach Pete Carroll's teams that they improve as the season progresses. No one on the current offense denies they have a long way to go.

But Saturday, even as he was being philosophical, Kalil could feel satisfied.

As the game wore on, the Arizona defense wore down, not rushing as fast or as hard as they had earlier. With the score 10-3 in the fourth quarter, USC mounted a 10-play, 64-yard drive that resulted in a field goal and a more comfortable margin.

"I know it wasn't pretty," Kalil said. "I know we missed a few blocks, but we just kept punishing them."

For now, Kalil and his teammates will take effort over elegance.

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david.wharton@latimes.com

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