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COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Richard knows terrain well

Arizona, where USC plays Saturday, is the site of the graduate assistant's most important college play.

October 23, 2008|David Wharton | Wharton is a Times staff writer.

At some point before Saturday's game at Arizona Stadium, Kris Richard will jog across the field to a particular spot on the turf.

The spot where, seven years ago, he made an interception that helped change the course of USC football.

"It's my first time back in that stadium," he said. "I'll find the spot."

Returning to Tucson as a graduate assistant working with the USC secondary, Richard again will focus on containing Arizona's passing attack in a Pacific 10 Conference game the Trojans must win.

In 2001, he was a senior cornerback on Coach Pete Carroll's first team, a squad that had struggled to a 2-5 start. The Trojans stormed to a big lead at Arizona that season but let the Wildcats chip away until the score was tied, 34-34, with 1 minute 50 seconds to play.

Richard recalls the moment -- the Wildcats were in their two-minute offense -- as if it were yesterday.

"They put slots to the boundary and automatically I'm thinking in my head, nine times out of 10, teams like to call a hitch to the sideline," he said. "They were going to throw the hitch, get out of bounds real quick, try to work their way downfield."

Lined up in zone coverage, Richard faked as if to drop back. Just as the Arizona quarterback released the ball, he jumped the short route, intercepted the pass and ran 58 yards for the winning touchdown.

It was a moment of pure adrenaline rush and maybe a little relief.

"We'd pulled one out at the end," he said. "We knew we were capable."

Echoing that sentiment in the locker room afterward, Carroll told his team: "We don't have to lose anymore."

It was, to the coach's way of thinking, the game when players began to understand -- and believe -- what he was trying to teach them.

The Trojans finished the regular season with four consecutive victories and a 6-5 record. Though they lost to Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl, that fall marked the start of a run that has included seven consecutive bowl appearances and two national championships.

Years later, Carroll says, "To me, it was just a significant [moment] and I tried to make it a moment for everybody else."

For Richard, the interception also marked a point when he believed in himself as a player. He spent four years in the NFL, returning to visit USC occasionally. Each time, his former coach introduced him to the team and told the story of that night in Arizona.

Now, seven years later, Richard returns to the scene of his greatest moment as a college player, more concerned about how USC's second-ranked defense will fare against the current Wildcats quarterback, Willie Tuitama, who stands at No. 19 in the nation in passing efficiency.

But Richard's coaching duties won't preclude a little reminiscing. He will take a pregame jog around the field, as he always does, this time with a slight detour.

"I'll run across that spot," he said.

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david.wharton@latimes.com

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