November 16, 2008

Trojans find offensive identity

Palo Alto, Calif. - It seemed like an obvious way to win this game.

Run the football.

USC tried to do it some early, and it didn't really work. But like a construction worker swinging a sledgehammer, it took time and commitment to crack the Stanford defense.

The Trojans swung with Stafon Johnson, C.J. Gable and Joe McKnight, and with each run, the holes in the Cardinal defense got wider.

Finally, the Trojans rushed through, leaving Stanford in the dust in USC's 45-23 win Saturday at Stanford Stadium.

"I think when it comes down to it, we can be a running football team - if we need to be," fullback Stanley Havili said.

The persistent pounding took its toll on the Cardinal defense, Stanford safety Bo McNally said.

"A big thing was tackling. We tackled really well in the first half, and it showed in their yardage and on the scoreboard," he said. "The second half, I think, they might have wore us out a little bit. Guys were falling off tackles, missing tackles, and they were breaking off big runs."

USC rushed just four times in the first quarter for a loss of four yards, and only one of those carries went to a tailback. The Trojans managed just three points in the quarter, coming after a Ronald Johnson kickoff return put USC in great field position.

Still, the offense looked out of sync.

"We were trying to mix-and-match so much early in the game that we couldn't find the running game," USC head coach Pete Carroll. "But, then (offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian) got after it. I thought he just figured it out and did a fantastic job of changing the night.

"When things don't go right, we know how to turn it."

The lack of offensive identity has been prevalent criticism of this year's Trojan football team, but Saturday, it became simple.

"We didn't really run the ball in the first quarter," McKnight said. "We started running the ball, and that's when we started scoring."

In the second quarter, USC rushed nine times, eight coming on USC's lone scoring drive in the quarter.

Then after heading to the locker room with the score tied at 17, the Trojans adjusted even more.

"We wanted this game, in particular, to be handled by the guys up front, and man, they did it," Carroll said. "They took over. I thought Sark did a great job to playing to how we wanted to turn the game around."

In the third quarter, USC ran the ball 12 times, and in the fourth, USC leaned even more heavily on its runners, rushing 18 times.

Stafon Johnson finished with 115 yards on 14 carries, Gable ran 14 times for 85 yards, and McKnight finished with 72 yards on only eight carries.

"If one of us gets a run, all of us have to get a big run," McKnight said. "If Stafon breaks a long run, then C.J. will come in and break a long run. Then, I'll come in and try to break a long run.

"We just feed off each other."

And when the offensive line is doing its job, Gable said, things get easy.

"We just had to do stuff right. We needed to do everything right, and that's what we did," Gable said. "We were messing up on certain plays. After awhile, we did stuff right, and it all came together.

"The holes got big. They made the openings, and we just followed the line."

And whether it was in the backfield or along the line of scrimmage, USC's 43 carries and 282 yards speaks volumes about how this offense can look.

"We made a statement," right tackle Butch Lewis said. "It lets people know we can run the ball, and we have the ability to run the ball."

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