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A Lucky Breakout?

After erratic sophomore year and turbulent off-season, Nebraska running back looks to step it up against USC

September 14, 2007|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

LINCOLN, Neb. -- The subject of Saturday's game between USC and Nebraska -- and the hyperbole sparked by two nationally ranked teams drenched in football tradition -- does not get very far with Marlon Lucky.

"It's just like another game," he said. "It's nothing special."

Nor does the opportunity to play on national television, a chance to showcase his talents, appear to impress the Cornhuskers running back.

"It would probably put my name out there," he said. "But whatever comes, comes."

For now, the junior seems more interested in securing a reputation on his own team, erasing the faint disappointment of seasons past, making good on expectations that followed him out of North Hollywood High.

Nebraska probably will need his best effort. The underdog Cornhuskers lost to USC last season because of the unfortunate combination of a conservative offense and a failure to run the ball effectively.

"Coach is going to bring it all out for this game," Lucky said. "Throw it, run it. We've got to find their weakness."

Two years have passed since the 6-foot, 210-pound back arrived in Lincoln as a highly touted recruit. Much was made of the fact that he chose Nebraska over USC and Coach Pete Carroll, who had courted him. It was a rare instance in recent seasons when a top high school running back decided not to sign with the Trojans.

As a freshman at Nebraska, Lucky played mostly on special teams, carrying the ball only 43 times for 129 yards. Last fall was supposed to be different.

The early weeks of the 2006 season included 100-yard games against Nicholls State and Troy. But, returning home to face USC in the Coliseum, the sophomore rushed 10 times for 27 yards and things soon turned south.

Brandon Jackson had pushed him out of the starting lineup by midseason and it didn't seem to help when Lucky gained a respectable 88 yards against Auburn in the Cotton Bowl.

By February, local papers were publishing reports that he had been found unconscious in his apartment, suffering from an undisclosed medical condition.

In an interview released by the athletic department, Lucky called the off-season a "big turning point. I was doing horrible here. All the stuff was too fast for me and I had to slow down. . . . I need to be more mature about everything and take life seriously."

None of this came up during a recent news conference. When contacted by The Times for further comment, the running back sent his response through a Nebraska spokesman.

"He didn't refuse to talk," the spokesman said. "He declined."

Perhaps his actions are speaking louder than words. Lucky made the Big 12 commissioner's honor roll in the spring and remained in Lincoln over the summer to train.

Then, in the season opener, he ran for 233 yards against overmatched Nevada. Coach Bill Callahan offered restrained praise, saying, "I'm happy for Marlon."

Last week, his numbers were more subdued -- 24 carries for 90 yards and a touchdown -- and the Cornhuskers barely escaped an upset loss to Wake Forest.

To this point, it looks as if he will share at least some of the workload with freshman Quentin Castille, who is more of a straight-ahead runner.

Lucky seems to understand the situation; he cannot afford another letdown like last fall.

He talks about staying healthy, trying to be a team leader and improving his game. That means finishing runs harder and augmenting his rushing skills.

"I can catch the ball too," he said. "That's what I'm looking for. All-purpose."

A big day against the top-ranked Trojans and their respected defense would go a long way toward establishing such credentials.

The running back has watched game films and is impressed by USC's veteran defensive line and linebackers.

This week, he has heard from family and friends back in Los Angeles, everyone wanting to talk about how Nebraska will fare against USC.

"Of course, my family wants us to beat them," he said. "It's a big game for them."

But not especially so for the Cornhuskers' leading rusher. He just wants another good performance, another step in the right direction.

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david.wharton@latimes.com

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