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USC finds lots of running room

The offensive line is dominant as the Trojans finish with 313 yards on the ground. Tailback Johnson winds up with 144 yards.

September 16, 2007|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

LINCOLN, Neb. -- The guys on the USC offensive line couldn't help themselves -- every once in a while they glanced up at the scoreboard.

It wasn't the score they were looking for. It was their team's total rushing yardage.

"Oh yeah," center Kris O'Dowd said. "We were watching."

The final tally came to a dominating 313 yards on the ground. And those were 313 of the biggest reasons that top-ranked USC trampled 14th-ranked Nebraska, 49-31, at sold-out Memorial Stadium on Saturday.

All night long, Trojans running backs sprinted through holes wide enough to accommodate a tractor. The Cornhuskers defense was left mystified.

"Truthfully," linebacker Steve Octavien said, "I'm not sure exactly what happened."

The performance was part muscle -- the brutal physics of pushing bodies out of the way -- and part brains.

Knowing they were entering a hostile and inordinately loud stadium, the Trojans' offensive line spent the previous two weeks learning hand signals. Every time the Nebraska defense showed signs of shifting or blitzing, the USC lineman quickly signaled to each other.

"We had to fix our communication," tackle Sam Baker explained. "Who's going where."

Play calling helped, too. Offensive line coach Pat Ruel said his players had particular success with misdirection and inside zone blocking. USC would run a receiver in motion, dragging a Nebraska defender out of the play, then attack the opening.

"Everybody was just doing their jobs," Baker said.

There is a brief disclaimer with all of this: Nebraska entered the game bearing less-than-stellar defensive credentials. The Cornhuskers struggled to make tackles against Wake Forest last week and their defensive line was considered a liability.

Still, the last time USC covered so much ground on the ground was a 2005 victory over UCLA that featured 430 yards rushing. This time, it did not take long to suspect another big night was imminent.

On their opening drive, the Trojans took possession at the four-yard line, backed up against the end zone, the crowd producing a jet-engine roar.

Quarterback John David Booty simply handed the ball to fullback Stanley Havili on a dive play that ended up gaining 50 yards. The very next snap, tailback C.J. Gable sprinted around right end for 40 more yards.

"That first series, they were doing everything, using all their slants, all their blitzes," tackle Drew Radovich said of the Cornhuskers' defense. "We picked them up great."

As USC continued to run free, the USC linemen noticed their Nebraska counterparts growing frustrated, hanging their heads. Even the Trojans' running backs, who scored five rushing touchdowns, were startled by the gaping holes.

"My eyes opened up real big," said Stafon Johnson, who led all rushers with 144 yards. "I was like a kid in a candy store."

Standing in the locker room afterward, entertaining a crowd of reporters, Ruel tried to balance his praise with a bit of tough coach talk. Yes, his line has a chance to be very good, he said. No, it isn't there yet.

But there wasn't much cynicism among the players. O'Dowd described the game as a "we're here" statement.

The linemen were feeling good and they had the numbers -- bright and shining on the scoreboard -- to back it up.

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david.wharton@latimes.com

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