- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 31, 2003

AUBURN, Ala. — How about Pete Carroll for governor of California?

The third-year Southern California coach brought more than just a relatively inexperienced squad to the home of the SEC’s preseason powerhouse. He arrived on the Plains of Auburn bearing a near-flawless game plan.

Thanks to a defensive scheme that neutralized Auburn’s ballyhooed tailback duo, the No.8 Trojans blanked the sixth-ranked Tigers in their own home, cruising to a 23-0 victory before 86,063 mostly mute spectators at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

“It was a special win solely because we have such respect for them and their tradition,” said Carroll. “I was very pleased with how we managed the game and dictated the tempo in a hostile environment.”

Entering the weekend’s only showdown between top-10 teams, USC was the team expected to have major issues behind center. After the departure of Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer, the quarterback who led last season’s 11-2 renaissance in Troy, most folks figured the Trojans would struggle somewhat offensively while redshirt sophomore Matt Leinart adjusted to the demands of the position.

But Leinart, who had never completed a pass in college until sophomore sensation Mike Williams hauled in the second toss of his career for a touchdown less than three minutes into the first quarter, was far more than serviceable. The 6-foot-5, 220-pounder finished the game 17 of 30 for 192 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions, relying on Williams and his other superb targets to turn simple routes into sizable gains.

It was Leinart’s counterpart, Auburn junior quarterback Jason Campbell, who was conspicuously incompetent.

From the game’s first series, it was obvious that Carroll and his staff didn’t think Campbell could beat them. So instead of attempting to stop Auburn’s talented tailback tandem of Carnell “Cadillac” Williams and Ronnie Brown with a base defensive scheme, the Trojans confronted the Tigers with a stacked line from the start. The message was simple: USC wasn’t going to allow Williams and Brown to breathe until Campbell and his receivers proved they could consistently make plays downfield against man coverage.

That proof wasn’t forthcoming as the USC defensive line totally dominated up front, and Campbell spent the entire evening alternately running for his life and making major miscues.

“We just got whipped at the point of attack,” said Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, whose team was shut out for the first time in 45 games since a 24-0 loss at Tennessee in 1999. “Our offensive line couldn’t handle their front four, five or six. We couldn’t sustain any drives. They asked us to come get it in the passing game, and we couldn’t. They put a lot of pressure on Jason, and that forced us to turn it over three times.”

The first of those turnovers came just one minute into the game, as Campbell scrambled right on Auburn’s first possession and tried to force a third-down pass through a heavy pass rush. Defensive end Omar Nazel tipped the ball, and freshman safety Darnell Bing turned the dubious decision by the Auburn quarterback into an easy interception and a short, 20-yard field for the Trojans.

Two runs and a pass interference call later, Leinart hit Williams (eight receptions, 104 yards) for a 5-yard touchdown on a quick seam route for the game’s first score.

“That was a real tone-setter,” Leinart said of the interception and quick score. “I was nervous right up until kickoff, but after the defense got us that turnover, I settled right down. After that it just felt like I was out there at practice.”

It looked a bit like USC was practicing against a scout squad as the Trojans scandalously outclassed their counterparts at literally every position. Nowhere was that disparity more apparent than up front, where USC’s defensive front delivered a 60-minute lesson in humility to Auburn’s offensive line.

It would be difficult to tab a particular front-seven star for the Trojans. Sophomore linebacker Lofa Tatupu, son of Mosi, led USC with 12 tackles and two sacks. Defensive tackle Shaun Cody whipped Auburn center Danny Lindsey so thoroughly that the latter might want to skip tomorrow’s film session or quit the game altogether. And Bing, who added a fumble recovery and four tackles to his interception, announced his arrival as a serious national star in the secondary.

All told, the Trojans finished the game with six sacks, held the Brown-Williams duo to 68 yards rushing on 20 carries and forced Campbell into an abysmal night on which he completed only 12 of 26 passes for a paltry 121 yards. After a third field goal from USC’s Ryan Killeen gave the Trojans a 16-0 lead midway through the third quarter, Campbell put an exclamation point on his evening of woe, fumbling under pressure deep in his own territory on the Tigers’ first possession of the fourth quarter.

Just as they did on the game’s opening series, the Trojans parlayed Campbell’s snafu into seven points as sophomore tailback Hershel Dennis waltzed into the end zone from 14 yards out with 13:51 remaining to complete the rout.

“I don’t really know what this means for us looking down the road,” Carroll said humbly after the game.

It means last season’s 11-2 finish wasn’t just a product of Carson Palmer’s spectacular play. It means Carroll has resurrected the Trojans of old, and the West Coast once again has a legitimate title contender.

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