March 17, 2005
As the 2005 USC football team begins spring football drills this Tuesday (March 22) for 15 sessions through April 16, the players will ignore all the talk about a "three-peat"...or rather, a "three-Pete."
Instead, the Trojans will just focus on their annual goal: win the Rose Bowl.
Of course, if the two-time defending national champion Trojans do capture the "Granddaddy of All Bowl Games" this season, they will accomplish something never before done in modern college football history...win three consecutive national titles. That's because the upcoming Rose Bowl hosts the BCS Championship Game.
But "three-peating" won't be easy, despite the fact that Troy returns so many ingredients from its recent success. The 2005 Trojans realize they will have a giant target on their backs every game.
"It's an exciting challenge to be the returning national champion and we look forward to dealing with everything that goes with that," said fifth-year head coach Pete Carroll, who has won 82.4% of his games (42-9) at USC and has guided Troy to its winningest 3-year period ever (36 victories). "We'll handle it well. Our approach will be the same as it always is. Our goal always is to win the Pac-10 and win to the Rose Bowl."
The Trojans have been on quite a run lately. Three straight BCS bowl wins, a current streak of 22 victories in a row (and 33 in the last 34 games), three consecutive Pacific-10 titles, an unprecedented three-year sweep of rivals UCLA and Notre Dame, an active string of 15 straight Pac-10 conquests, two of the last three Heisman Trophy winners, and 11 first team All-Americans in the past 2 years.
In 2004, USC went 13-0 overall (8-0 in the Pac-10) to post its first-ever 13-win season. Troy became only the second team ever to hold its AP No. 1 ranking from the pre-season all the way through the entire season. USC captured its 11th national title when it demolished No. 2 Oklahoma, 55-19, in the BCS Championship Game in the Orange Bowl. Troy outscored opponents by nearly 26 points a game, including a school-record 8 games with a margin of at least 30 points. Defensively, the Trojans were in the national Top 10 in every statistical category, including first in rushing defense and turnover margin.
"We're really proud of our recent accomplishments," said Carroll. "But we view those now as things in the past. Our focus is on the 2005 season."
Fifteen starters (8 on offense, 6 on defense, plus the punter) return in 2005. In all, 80 squadmen are back from a year ago, including 60 who saw playing time (51 were lettermen and 30 were on USC's season-ending 2-deep). On the roster are 26 Trojans who have started at least once in their career.
Joining them will be 17 new scholarship players--including 3 already enrolled at USC and set to participate in spring practice--who comprise what some recruiting observers have ranked as the nation's top class for the third year in a row.
"Our primary objective will be to recapture the intensity and competitive atmosphere that we've had the past few years here," said Carroll. "If our returning players and the group of outstanding new players we have coming in can do that, then we have a chance to have another good season."
Headlining the offensive returnees is 2004 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Matt Leinart, who after much deliberation spurned the NFL to return for his senior season in an attempt to lead the Trojans to an unprecedented third consecutive national title and to become only the second player ever to win a pair of Heismans. The 2-time All-American first teamer and Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year is 25-1 as a starter. He has completed 64.3% of his career passes for 6,878 yards and 71 touchdowns (1 shy of the USC record). Last fall, he hit 65.3% of his throws for 3,322 yards and 33 TDs with just 6 interceptions.
He'll be joined in the backfield by the "Thunder and Lightning" tailback duo of powerful LenDale White and electrifying Reggie Bush. At least 1 of the juniors-to-be has scored a TD in USC's last 24 games, including 11 times when they both did so. White, who has 28 career rushing touchdowns, ran for 1,103 yards and scored a Pac-10 leading 17 times in 2004. He has 8 100-yard rushing games in his career. The all-purpose Bush, who was fifth in the 2004 Heisman voting when he earned All-American first team honors, finished in the national Top 20 in all-purpose running, punt returns and kickoff returns last season. He had 2,330 all-purpose yards in 2004 and in his career has produced touchdowns 5 different ways (rushing, receiving, kickoff returns, punt returns and passing). He shared the 2004 Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year trophy with Leinart.
USC has an equally-effective pair of wide receivers in Steve Smith and Dwayne Jarrett. Smith caught 42 passes for 650 yards in 2004 despite missing 5 games with a broken leg. Three of his 6 TD catches last season came in the Orange Bowl. Jarrett had a Mike Williams-like freshman season in 2004. He was a Freshman All-American first teamer, grabbing a team-best 55 aerials for 849 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Also available are several other key offensive performers, including dominating tight end Dominique Byrd (37 catches and 3 TDs in 2004 despite missing the first 4 games with a broken kneecap), guard Jeff Byers (a 2004 Freshman All-American second teamer after starting 4 games), fullback David Kirtman (19 catches in 2004), wide receiver Chris McFoy (21 catches and 9 starts in 2004) and tailback Desmond Reed, a Bush clone.
And don't forget about the quartet of top offensive players who missed last year, but are back now: tackle Winston Justice (a starter in 2002 and 2003), speedy fullback Brandon Hancock (a 2003 starter), wide receiver Whitney Lewis (he had won a starting job last spring) and tailback Chauncey Washington.
On defense, 3 defensive backs, 2 linemen and a linebacker return as starters. Two-year starting strong safety Darnell Bing, who has 132 tackles in his career, anchors a secondary that also returns lock-down cornerbacks Justin Wyatt and Eric Wright. Ends Lawrence Jackson, who had 11 tackles for loss and 6 sacks while winning Freshman All-American first team honors last fall, and Frostee Rucker (7.5 tackles for loss in 2004) will again patrol the perimeter. Veteran Dallas Sartz, who made 48 tackles last year, returns at strongside linebacker.
Also back are some other defenders who played key roles in 2004, including tackle Manuel Wright (23 tackles, 6 for losses with 2 starts in 2004), safety Scott Ware (16 tackles with 3 starts last year), linebacker Keith Rivers (25 stops in 2004), end Jeff Schweiger (18 tackles last fall) and cornerback Terrell Thomas (2 interceptions in 2004).
All-American first team punter Tom Malone, like Leinart, put off the NFL to return for his 2005 senior season. The Ray Guy Award candidate's 44.5 career punting average is above the school record and just shy of the Pac-10 mark. Last year, he was ninth nationally with a 43.8 average.
But USC's personnel losses are significant, particularly on defense. Gone are 4 defensive All-American first teamers: tackles Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson and linebackers Matt Grootegoed and Lofa Tatupu. Last year, Cody and Patterson were USC's first pair of defensive line All-Americans since 1969 and Cody was USC's first-ever defensive lineman to be named Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year. Between them, they had 7 years of starting experience and posted 29 tackles for loss and 16 sacks in 2004. Grootegoed, a 4-year starter like Cody, had 222 career tackles (41.5 for losses) and 6 interceptions. Tatupu, who declared for the NFL following his 2004 junior season, was USC's tackle leader the past 2 seasons (he had 202 total stops after transferring from Maine). Also missing on defense is 2-year starting free safety Jason Leach (he had 9 career interceptions).
But three-year placekicker Ryan Killeen is gone after leading the Pac-10 in scoring in 2004, as well as setting the Pac-10 career record for PATs (176) and the USC all-time points mark (329).
"In previous years, we have shown the ability to deal with the loss of great players," said Carroll. "I'm confident we have the personnel who will seize their opportunities and step up, especially among our new and our younger players. This kind of an annual challenge is what makes college football so much fun."
Besides trying to replace some talented departed players, USC lost several key assistant coaches: offensive coordinator Norm Chow (same job with the Tennessee Titans), assistant head coach/defensive line coach/recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron (head coach at Mississippi), offensive line coach Tim Davis (same position with the Miami Dolphins) and quarterbacks coach Carl Smith (offensive coordinator with the Jacksonville Jaguars).
So, Carroll adjusted his staff by giving wide receivers coach Lane Kiffin the additional duties of offensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator, re-hiring Oakland Raiders assistant Steve Sarkisian as quarterbacks coach and also making him assistant head coach (he was on the USC staff for Carroll's first 3 seasons), elevating Ken Norton Jr. to full-time status as linebackers coach (with returnee Rocky Seto) and hiring a pair of NFL assistants in defensive line coach Jethro Franklin from the Green Bay Packers and offensive line coach Pat Ruel from the New York Giants. Former USC and NFL linebacker Sam Anno joined the staff as a graduate assistant working with the special teams and defense and ex-Division I-AA All-American David Watson came from Michigan State to be an offensive line graduate assistant, while former graduate assistant Dennis Slutak became director of football operations. They will join the 3 other holdovers from the staff: Greg Burns (secondary), Brennan Carroll (tight ends) and Todd McNair (running backs).
USC will be challenged by a schedule that includes 6 opponents who played in bowls last season, with 4 who won at least 8 games. USC opens its 2005 slate at Hawaii on Labor Day weekend, then has a bye before hosting Arkansas (the schools' first meeting since 1974) in the Coliseum, where Troy has won its past 21 games (5 shy of the Pac-10 record). The Trojans then begin Pac-10 action by playing 4 of their next 5 games on the road, with a home contest versus Arizona sandwiched in the middle of trips to Oregon, Arizona State, intersectional rival Notre Dame and Washington. USC then closes its regular season with 4 of its last 5 games at home (Troy has won a league record 15 consecutive Pac-10 home games) by hosting Washington State for Homecoming and Stanford before going to California and then coming home for non-conference foe Fresno State (the Bulldogs beat Troy in the 1992 Freedom Bowl in the only other meeting) and, after a bye, crosstown rival UCLA.
This schedule should help USC once again be among college football's most popular draws. Last season, the Trojans set a Pac-10 record for home attendance average (85,229), as well as school marks for total home attendance, overall attendance average and total overall attendance.
"From start to finish, we realize this is a very demanding schedule," said Carroll. "We'll have to be at our best each game because we know our opponents will fire their best shots at us. But if you're a USC fan, or just a college football fan, we think it'll be fun to watch us play. We're counting on getting the same kind of fan support we had last year, especially at home when the Coliseum was so electric and we had such a home field advantage."
Pete Carroll's two-time defending national champion Trojans begin spring football practice on March 22.