Growing up in New Jersey, Anthony Sarao knew nothing about the team he chose every time he played a college football video game.
He didn't know the names of No. 1 or No. 5 — representing Trojans receiver Mike Williams and running back Reggie Bush — but he knew that they had big gains or scored touchdowns every time he passed the virtual ball in their direction.
"I didn't know who they were because I'm on the East Coast," Sarao explains. "But we started to know once Reggie kept being on ESPN.
"Then we thought, 'Oh, that's USC.'"
Years later, Sarao is a starting linebacker for the second-ranked Trojans, who play Syracuse on Saturday in what is being billed as the inaugural New York's College Classic at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
In a region dominated by behemoth NFL franchises and fan bases, USC is one of a few college football programs that can move pro-sports-mad cities in the Northeast to take notice.
"USC carries a huge cachet, it's a very national brand," says Syracuse Athletic Director Daryl Gross, a former USC athletics administrator. "It's not a school that has to be explained."
Sarao, a redshirt freshman, returns to his home state more than a year after following in the footsteps of former New Jersey-bred standouts such as Richard Wood, Rich Dimler, Dwayne Jarrett and Brian Cushing.
"The players we do got in Jersey," Sarao says, "they ball. USC is not going to come to Jersey and grab an average player."
The Trojans' roster includes three players from the Northeast. Sarao is from Egg Harbor Township, N.J. Tailback and Penn State transfer Silas Redd is from Norwalk, Conn. And safety Gerald Bowman, a transfer from Los Angeles Pierce College, is from Philadelphia.
While Penn State, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Boston College and Rutgers compete to keep talented players in the Northeast, they are increasingly fighting off challenges from Southeastern and Big Ten conference schools as well as USC, Oregon and, in some cases, Stanford.
USC has advantages because of name recognition, location and access by direct flights from the East Coast, says Mike Farrell, national recruiting analyst for rivals.com
"It's Hollywood; it's L.A.," he says. "It's pretty much like the professional franchise in the market."
However, USC is handicapped somewhat by its location in a different time zone. Northeast recruits are in the same time zone as some of the SEC. USC's games start and end later. Often, much later.
"The time difference does hurt," Farrell says, "but I don't think it hurts USC as much as other programs."
Northeastern players who migrated west to play for the Trojans say television played a huge role in their decisions to leave home.
Jimmy Jones, the Trojans' quarterback from 1969-71, grew up in Harrisburg, Pa. Jones remembers watching national broadcasts that featured USC and Heisman Trophy winner O.J. Simpson. But he also says that episodes of "I Love Lucy" that chronicled a comedic trip to California, showing palm trees and huge Beverly Hills houses, made him curious about the region.
Simpson escorted him on his recruiting trip and he saw New York transplant Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then Lew Alcindor, playing basketball for UCLA. The trip convinced him that USC and coach John McKay offered the fairest opportunity for an African American to compete for a starting role at quarterback, for the team to compete for a national title and for Jones to grow academically.
"I got the full gamut of the glamour of what Los Angeles was all about," said Jones, an ordained minister and school counselor in the Harrisburg area. "That, with all the other factors that were met, I couldn't refuse the opportunity."
Some of his friends were excited and wished him luck. Others were fearful, asking if he was crazy to consider going where he had no family.
"Selling that idea to my parents was one of the greatest selling jobs I ever had to do in my life," he recalls, laughing.
While Jones led the Trojans, linebacker Wood and his friends watched from afar in Elizabeth, N.J., marking the calendar by USC's games against Notre Dame, UCLA and in the Rose Bowl.
"Whatever we'd be doing that day, we'd say, 'We've got to get back to the house and watch the 'SC game,'" Wood recalled. "Then we'd be outside playing, saying, 'Jimmy Jones drops back to pass.'"
USC began recruiting Wood after his high school coach met McKay at a clinic. USC assistants Dave Levy and Wayne Fontes recruited Wood, as did a Nebraska assistant by the name of Monte Kiffin, USC's current assistant head coach for defense.
Meanwhile, players such as Connecticut native Willie Hall and New Jersey native Charles "Sugar Bear" Hinton had arrived at USC by way of Arizona junior colleges. Jones showed Wood around on a campus visit before the linebacker enrolled at USC in 1971.
"Those guys opened the door," says Wood, who was a three-time All-American (1972-74), played 10 seasons in the NFL and now coaches high school football in Florida.
More Jersey boys followed Wood, including defensive lineman Dimler in the mid-'70s; brothers Timmy and Lonnie White, both receivers, in the 1980s; and All-American receiver Jarrett and All-American linebacker Cushing in the last decade.
Cushing, now with the Houston Texans, paid daily homage to his New Jersey heritage by tapping Wood's photo as he made his way from the locker room to USC's practice field.
Sarao mentions Cushing when asked why he decided to attend USC.
"When Cush came, everybody knew about Jersey off that," Sarao says. "They started wanting to go to 'SC.
"It died down, but it's coming back now that I'm here."