Top-Ranked Trojans Rip Nebraska

Stafon Johnson
USC running back Stafon Johnson runs for 144 yards and a touchdown as the Trojans rout Nebraska. (Dave Weaver - AP)
By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 16, 2007

LINCOLN, Neb., Sept. 15 -- The college football season's first month has fast become a beauty contest starring two contestants, Southern California and Louisiana State, perennial front-runners now judged on style as much as results.

One week after LSU pounded Virginia Tech and took 19 first-place votes from idle USC in the Associated Press poll, the Trojans offered a persuasive rebuttal. In a 49-31 victory over No. 14 Nebraska, the Trojans flexed their muscles on national television and garnered enough style points to almost certainly remain atop the polls this week.

USC's performance was not as convincing as LSU's 48-7 victory over Virginia Tech on Sept. 8, but it was still impressive considering the environment -- a Memorial Stadium crowd of 84,959 awash in red -- and the magnitude of the matchup in Nebraska, a state yearning for a football renaissance.

The final score was not indicative of how the Trojans dominated because Nebraska scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns after USC had inserted less experienced players into the game. USC Coach Pete Carroll said if polls were a "big deal for us, we would have played this game differently" in the end, adding, "this game was clear that we had command of it."

The first time a No. 1 team had visited Memorial Stadium in 29 years offered the Cornhuskers (2-1) the chance to reestablish themselves as a national contender in the fourth year of Coach Bill Callahan's tenure. Instead, Nebraska, the team that dominated much of the 1990s, was no match for the team that has owned this decade. USC's offensive line, despite playing with a freshman center, created gaping holes for a plethora of talented running backs who scampered all over the field from the game's start to finish. USC outgained Nebraska on the ground, 313-31.

"I have not seen holes that big since I have been here," said USC sophomore Stafon Johnson, who rushed for 144 yards. "My eyes got real big when I saw them. Our line is great."

It was a positive omen when Carroll watched his 225-pound fullback, redshirt freshman Stanley Havili, race 50 yards and brush off safety Larry Asante on USC's first offensive play. On the next play, C.J. Gable, one of USC's handful of celebrated tailbacks, ran 40 yards, spinning his way past defenders to help set up USC's first touchdown.

Nebraska never found a way to contain one of USC's running backs, let alone all of them. Three USC running backs -- Havili, Gable and Johnson -- averaged more than 10 yards per carry.

"I don't think there was any question we could run the ball at any time," Carroll said. "We didn't have to throw the football at all."

Nebraska also never found a way to contend with a highly touted USC defense, which returned 10 starters from last season. USC made opportunistic defensive plays in the second half to stifle two California natives, Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller and running back Marlon Lucky.

Keller, the Arizona State transfer, completed 16 of 24 passes in the first half, but in the second half replayed a bad memory from two years ago. In 2005, Keller led Arizona State to a 21-3 halftime lead against USC, only to throw four interceptions in the second half of a 10-point loss. On Nebraska's first possession of the second half Saturday, Keller was intercepted by Terrell Thomas, who returned the ball 19 yards to set up a touchdown that gave the Trojans control. Quarterback John David Booty rolled to his right and had two receivers open near the end zone. He opted to throw to Anthony McCoy for the two-yard score.

Lucky, who rushed for a career-high 233 yards against Nevada, was held to 33 yards rushing and was a non-factor in the game's outcome. The story was the running attack of USC, which amassed 205 yards rushing in the first half, including 90 on its first two offensive plays to set up USC's first touchdown. Booty hooked up with Havili in the end zone for a five-yard touchdown pass, which concluded a four-play drive that covered 96 yards.

While USC relied heavily on the running game, the Cornhuskers had no choice but to lean on their passing attack. Keller led Nebraska on a 10-play drive in the first quarter that stalled at the 4-yard line. Callahan appeared content to attempt a field goal on a fourth-and-two play, but the Cornhuskers were awarded a first down after an unusual defensive penalty that seemed to bewilder Carroll on the sideline. The Trojans were penalized because players are not allowed to use words or signals to interfere with offensive signals. Two plays later, Cody Glenn scored on a one-yard run.

Midway through the second quarter, the game was delayed 10 minutes as USC tended to injured kick returner Vincent Joseph. Joseph was taken to an area hospital with a bruised larynx, but was moving and talking, according to press box officials. Another USC player, safety Alfred Rowe, suffered a concussion in the first half and did not return.

The Trojans may have been shaken up in the first half, but they made sure the Cornhuskers were the ones reeling by game's end.

"I noticed we lost some votes last week and we didn't even play," USC defensive end Kyle Moore said. "I don't know if we changed people's minds this week because we shouldn't have given up those touchdowns at the end."

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