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McKnight looks simply 'Reggie-ish'

Freshman dazzles with 206 all-purpose yards and his big-play ability while conjuring images of past game-breaker.

January 02, 2008|Mike Hiserman | Times Staff Writer

There was a lot of talk about what could have been and should have been surrounding USC's season after the Trojans' 49-17 Rose Bowl victory over Illinois on Tuesday.

And then there was the buzz around Joe McKnight, the conversation turning to the future.

As in, how good could this guy get?

Only a freshman, he showed that he's already very good, accounting for 206 all-purpose yards -- 36 on three punt returns, 45 on six pass receptions and 125 in 10 carries -- and prompting postgame comparisons to Reggie Bush by senior tailback Chauncey Washington and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.

Washington lauded the freshman as "a warrior," noting that he shook off hard hits to his knees and elsewhere only to "explode and speed off" on a couple of big plays. Sarkisian spoke of McKnight's willingness to lower his shoulders and punish tacklers as "Reggie-ish."

Funny, nobody said anything about his rebounding and dribbling abilities.

McKnight showed both at key junctures in his first postseason game and was credited by offensive lineman Drew Radovich for ultimately taking the fight out of the Illini.

The rebound came on USC's first possession, after Vidal Hazelton caught a pass from John David Booty only to have it knocked from his possession and ricochet directly to McKnight, who completed the play for a gain of 14 yards.

On the third play after that, Booty connected with Washington for an eight-yard scoring pass and a 7-0 lead.

"Lucky bounces," McKnight said. "I looked up and that one came right to me. All I had to do was catch it."

The dribbling exhibition required significantly more dexterity -- and for Illinois it was a back-breaker.

USC was up, 21-10, and had just dodged a bullet by recovering an Illini fumble in the end zone. But the Trojans were backed up at their own 23, needing 20 yards for a first down when McKnight sprinted toward his right and Booty threw him a swing pass that bounced out of his hands and to the turf . . . and then right back into his grasp.

Because the pass was thrown about two yards backward, it was a lateral. But the Illinois defense seemed to pause for a split second -- or maybe it only seemed that way as McKnight quickly shifted into high gear and took off for a 65-yard gain.

"I didn't hear the whistle, so I picked it up and I still didn't hear a whistle so I just kept running," McKnight said.

That play also set up a touchdown, a two-yard pass from Booty to tight end Fred Davis, and the rout was on.

"I could feel it during my blocks," Radovich said. "After that play they'd kind of had enough."

Mark Sanchez, who hopes to be the quarterback handing off and throwing to McKnight next fall, predicted the running back's best days were still to come.

"We knew he was capable of great things," Sanchez said. "He might have been a little confused by some things at the beginning of the season, but not now. We knew he was ready to break out on the national stage, and that's exactly what he did."

McKnight said he wanted to "make up for all the mistakes I made this year."

Mistakes?

"Fumbles," he said, pursing his lips and shaking his head over some early-season miscues. "In high school, I never fumbled."

Those errors, though, seem long forgotten, and Coach Pete Carroll said McKnight benefited from a month of being "force-fed" in practice to be "ready to have an impact in this game."

"Joe is the real deal," Carroll added. "He's tough and fast and all the rest. He's really a difference-maker.

"We searched to find somebody to take kind of the style of play that we had a few years ago with Reggie. There's no question that Joe can do similar stuff . . . he's going to even have a larger role."

--

mike.hiserman@latimes.com

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