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Xs AND O's

Line play holds key to success

93rd Rose Bowl | Usc Vs Michigan

January 01, 2007|Lonnie White | Times Staff Writer

If USC's Dwayne Jarrett or Michigan's Mario Manningham catches a touchdown pass in today's Rose Bowl, you can count on the play's being included in the highlight clips.

But the real key players for this year's game between the Trojans and Wolverines are not the high-flying wide receivers. The true difference-makers will play in the trenches, battling to control the line of scrimmage. Here are two matchups to watch:

* USC center Ryan Kalil versus Michigan nose tackle Terrance Taylor: Kalil, a senior and three-year starter, is the heart and soul of the Trojans' offensive line. At 6 feet 3 and 285 pounds, Kalil is on the small side when compared with Michigan's Mark Bihl, who is listed at 6-5, 299. That's why Kalil relies on quickness and technique more than power and strength.

Playing in the Pacific 10 Conference, Kalil's size isn't that big of a problem because he faces defenses built around speed.

"We don't play a lot of great front sevens, that's just been the Pac-10 for a long time and you see that in the draft too," USC offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin told reporters last week. "There's not a lot of D-linemen that come from the Pac-10."

Kalil will have his hands full against Taylor, a 6-foot, 305-pound sophomore coming off a breakthrough game against Ohio State in which he had a season-high seven tackles, including two for losses.

Taylor, a former high school power-lifting champion, likes to use his power to penetrate opposing backfields and force double teams.

Michigan has "a classic Big Ten" defense, Kiffin said. "You don't see that type of size in our conference."

But Taylor hasn't faced many centers as quick and smart as Kalil, who made several All-American teams and was a unanimous All-Pac-10 selection for the second year in a row.

Michigan inside linebacker Dave Harris, who will often count on Taylor to keep Kalil from blocking him, said the Trojans senior is "one of the best centers in the country."

"He's very athletic for a center, he runs very well," Harris added. "He's a great footer, he gets on the second level very fast."

* Michigan running back Mike Hart versus USC middle linebackers Rey Maualuga and Oscar Lua: Although these players will not be positioned on the line of scrimmage, they will often meet there.

Hart, a 5-9, 196-pound senior, is the only back in the country to rush for more than 90 yards in every game this season. Hart is at his best when he can hide behind the Wolverines' big offensive line and then break through holes. This style helped him rush for 1,515 yards and 14 touchdowns.

But Hart will be tested by Maualuga and Lua, two run-stopping linebackers who have split time in the middle for the Trojans this season.

Both are solid tacklers, and that will be important against Hart, who uses strength and quickness to break tackles.

"His ability to break tackles and just run people over is amazing," Ohio State cornerback Brandon Mitchell said after Hart rushed for 142 yards in Michigan's loss to the Buckeyes.

Hart also does not turn the ball over, having fumbled only three times in his career. Look for Hart to gain additional yards if Maualuga and Lua try to strip the ball from him instead of stopping him first.

* Summary: The Trojans' offensive line failed to control the line of scrimmage in their loss to UCLA, and the Wolverines had some success in their loss to top-ranked Ohio State. Both teams will be looking to establish their running games, and the offense that sticks to it the longest probably will win the game.

lonnie.white@latimes.com

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