August 30, 2008

Trojans invade Virginia, conquer Cavs

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.- Late in the third quarter, Mark Sanchez dropped back to pass.

He had time - lots of it - like the defensive line was counting to seven Mississippi.

The protection allowed Ronald Johnson to break off a devastating route, putting yards, not inches, between him and the defense.

"I was lonely out there for a minute," Johnson said. "I just made sure to catch it. I mean, I had to."

He did.

It was a Trojan touchdown, a 49-yard strike, and it erased plenty of orange shirts from the stands of Scott Stadium.

Sure, the defense looked great, but it was the USC offense that dominated, clobbering Virginia 52-7 Saturday.

And even players inside the Trojan locker room didn't see it coming.

"They changed my perspective," linebacker Rey Maualuga said. "I figured they'd struggle some with how inexperienced they are up on the line and at receiver.

"I can seriously say I was nervous about how the offense would perform."

His nerves went away - fast.

USC struck for three touchdowns in the first quarter, the first coming while some fans were still looking for their seats.

After the defense stopped Virginia on three plays, a good return from Joe McKnight set up USC for a pass-heavy drive that covered 56 yards. Stafon Johnson capped things with a 2-yard run into the end zone.

On the next Trojan possession, it was McKnight leaping over the goal line after a 10-yard pass. Then, it was C.J. Gable turning fourth-and-two into a 33-yard score.

In the second half, it was a 20-yard pass to Patrick Turner and the bomb to Johnson. Then, it was two more scores in the fourth quarter.

In all, it was the most points USC has scored since 2005, when the Trojans hung 66 on UCLA.

Sanchez completed 26-of-35 passes for 338 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Eight different receivers caught Sanchez passes in the one-sided win.

The credit, largely, goes to the offensive line.

"Coach (Pat) Ruel calls it 'cooking steaks back there' because I have so much time," Sanchez said. "That's the way it felt."

Sanchez wasn't sacked and was never pressured on a consistent basis, allowing him to pick apart an out-classed Virginia defense.

"I love it," Pete Carroll said. "He has the eye for getting the ball down the field. You can just sense that if you give him time back there, he's going to find guys."

The line also set up some huge running lanes for the Trojan backfield, who combined to run for 225 yards on only 37 carries.

"This was really a big deal for this being our first shot with this offensive line," Carroll said. "Those guys played beautifully. There were a number of times when Mark just had forever back there.

"Nothing but good things happened."

Gable led the team with 73 yards rushing on nine carries, including the 33-yard score.

"I saw that big hole," he said, "and all I was thinking was touchdown."

And while the offense was doing all that, the USC defense was busy holding Virginia to just 155 yards and seven points.

"The holes closed awfully fast," Virginia head coach Al Groh said. "Those two linebackers can really run, and their safeties play like linebackers.

"They have all the ingredients for a great defensive year."

Virginia tried to spread USC out and take advantage of the space by having quarterback Peter Lalich orchestrate something falling under the wide umbrella created by the words "spread offense."

"They changed some things and changed their style," Carroll said. "Fortunately, we kind of guessed that they would do that, and we were really ready for it."

Bodies were flying all over the field as Virginia tried to move the ball down the field. Clay Matthews, specifically, was everywhere.

Matthews recorded six tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. Kevin Thomas added an interception, and Gerald Washington recovered a fumble late in the game.

USC finished with a plus-two turnover margin.

"If we have three or more turnovers, it's great for us," Matthews said. "We aim for three takeaways.

"If we can get that many, it's a successful game for us, and usually, it'll turn out with us getting the victory."

With the exception of perhaps Matthews, no one particular player had a monster game. The unit as a whole, however, made believers out of the Cavaliers.

"Their speed was pretty unbelievable the whole game," Lalich said. "It's something they have all across the board at every position, and they were able to use it their advantage."

Carroll said his team might not have been great on offense, defense and special teams, but they were certainly very good.

Like always, it started with the preparation, and Carroll saw it just like he has in past season openers.

"If you practice like that you should play like this," he said. "It has been evident over the years that when we prepare like this, we can expect to perform at a really high level."

While Carroll and his staff might have seen this offensive outburst coming, plenty of experts didn't. And the scary thing is the Trojan defense probably won't ever need 52 points from its offense to win.

"Not too be cocky or anything," Fili Moala said, "but all we really need is 10."

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