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Texas vs. USC: The Battle in the Trenches

   by Bryan Leonard - 01/03/2006

All the marbles are on the line this week in college football’s final game of the season. While all the attention is on the skill position talents like Matt Leinart, versatile Vince Young, and Heisman winner Reggie Bush, games are more often than not won in the trenches. Those unsung heroes who block, protect the quarterback and open up holes don’t get the Hollywood glory, but they are essential components of championship teams.

Last season Texas went 11-1 with a rushing offense that averaged 299 yards per game, a stellar 5.86 yards per carry. This season: 273.8 rushing yards, 5.8 ypc. You don’t do that on skill position talent alone. Texas has blocks of granite on the offensive line: 6-6 315-pound senior Will Allen, 6-4 239-pound four-year starter Justin Blalock (37 starts), 6-3 senior Mike Garcia, 6-7 315-pound Jon Scott (42 starts), and 6-5 305-pound Lyle Sendlein.

The two times over the last two seasons they’ve been handled was at Ohio State back in September, with 111 rushing yards, just 2.9 ypc against the Buckeye defense. And last season, a 12-0 loss to Oklahoma, getting 154 rush yards, 3.8 ypc. Texas averaged 12.5 points in those two games (one loss, one win).

When Pete Carroll was hired by USC five years ago, the offensive line was among the program's glaring weaknesses. Now it’s a strength. In 2001, Carroll's first season at USC, the Trojans ranked last in the conference in rushing, averaging only 88 yards a game. Current right tackle Winston Justice (6-6, 300-pounds) and junior right guard Fred Matua arrived the next season. The Trojans averaged 142 rushing yards and won the Orange Bowl to finish 11-2. By 2004, the Trojans averaged 177 rushing yards and routed Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl to win another national title, 55-19, with 193 yards rushing, 332 passing.

The 6-foot-6, 360-pound senior left guard Taitusi Lutui was voted onto several All-American teams. Junior center Ryan Kalil, 6-3 and 285, and sophomore Sam Baker, 6-5 and 305, were first-team All-Pacific 10 Conference. Justice is regarded a potential first-round NFL draft pick, and Matua, 6-2 and 305, also is considered a top pro prospect. The Trojans average 264 rushing yards a game. The quintet also kept quarterback Matt Leinart out of harm's way, giving up only 14 sacks as the 2004 Heisman winner directed an offense that averaged a nation-leading 580 yards a game.

Has USC’s running game been shut down? Well, yes and now. A year ago, Notre Dame held them to 83 yards rushing, just 2.9 ypc. However, USC won the game 41-10 passing for 405 yards! They also ran for 99 yards, 2.9 ypc in a surprising 31-28 last minute win over Stanford as a 22-point favorite, and Cal dominated the Trojans allowing 41 rush yards, 1.4 ypc, yet USC escaped on a last minute goal line stand, 23-17.

This season, no one has contained the USC ground game. Even in the 34-31 last second win over Notre Dame, USC had 175 rush yards, 5.6 yards per carry. And in that 50-42 great escape against Fresno, the Trojans had 308 rush yards, 8.6 ypc. The fewest rush yards they’ve had all season was 118 to Washington (51-24 win) and 177 at Hawaii in the opener (63-17 win). Needless to say, the defensive lines are going to be the key at pressuring the quarterbacks and doing their best to contain the runs. And good luck to them both!

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