No. 1 USC struggles but beats Va. Tech

Down at halftime, Trojans rally past Hokies, 24-13

August 29, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

LANDOVER - Top-ranked Southern California was supposed to have its way with unranked and untested Virginia Tech in last night's season-opening Black Coaches Association Classic at FedEx Field. The Trojans figured to win - and win big.

USC's winning streak might be 10 games dating back to last season, but its air of invincibility took a hit from the young and hungry Hokies, who took the Trojans down to the final two minutes before losing, 24-13.

A 29-yard touchdown pass from USC quarterback Matt Leinart to tailback Reggie Bush with 5:35 to go came after Virginia Tech linebacker Blake Warren fell. It was the third touchdown catch of the night for the 6-foot, 200-pound sophomore.

After forcing Virginia Tech quarterback Bryan Randall into a fumble, the Trojans sealed the victory on a 41-yard field goal by senior kicker Ryan Killeen with 54 seconds left. The pro-Hokies crowd of 91,665 - the largest in the stadium's history - seemed energized by the team's performance.

"I thought our team played awfully hard," said Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, whose team came in as 18-point underdogs. "I thought we played as good as we can."

USC didn't play like a team expected to have an easy run to a second straight national championship. The Trojans struggled on offense, took some silly penalties on defense and had their share of the crowd - about 11,000 - a bit nervous until the end.

"I thought it was a great lesson for our team," said USC coach Pete Carroll. "We really believe you win games in the fourth quarter, and tonight we had to."

Asked to describe his team's mood at halftime, Carroll said: "It was a hard halftime."

The victory came at the end of a tumultuous two-week period for the Trojans.

First, starting tailback Hershel Dennis was suspended for breaking curfew. Dennis is believed to still be the focus of an ongoing police investigation. Last week, USC learned that All-America wide-out Mike Williams' bid to be reinstated by the NCAA was rejected.

"The thing with Mike is over now. He is still a part of us, but it is time to move on," said Leinart, who threw 16 of his 38 touchdown passes last season to Williams. "We still have some weapons we can go to, and we can play."

Leinart, who came into the season as one of the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy, had a hard time finding his receivers deep until hitting Steve Smith on a 46-yard pass to set up Bush's second score and then hitting Bush for the 53-yard score. Leinart finished 19 of 29 for 272 yards and three touchdowns.

"Matt was as relaxed as normal out there, and then he settled down and played a great game," Carroll said. "In the third quarter, he looked over at the sidelines and gave me a little smile. That was when I knew he had settled in."

But the Trojans couldn't distance themselves from Virginia Tech. The Hokies, who were expected to be in the midst of a rebuilding season with 22 players in their first season, showed more heart than a more experienced USC team did down the stretch last night as Randall kept Virginia Tech in the game.

The team's senior captain rushed for 82 yards on 17 carries and passed for 153 more by completing 14 of 29 passes.

Trailing 14-10 with a little more than 10 minutes left, the Hokies took advantage of two costly personal fouls against the Trojans and a big catch by tight end Jeff King to drive to the Southern Cal 25. Brandon Pace then cut the deficit to 14-13 on a 42-yard field goal with 7:55 to go in the game.

Showing their poise, the Trojans came back immediately, with Leinart picking up a crucial first down on a quarterback sneak on third-and-one from the USC 23, then finding Smith to set up Bush's third touchdown. Bush's first touchdown followed an interception by linebacker Lofa Tatupu in the first quarter.

"I thought they played like the No. 1 team in the country in that they capitalized on every mistake we made," said Virginia Tech tailback Justin Hamilton. "They're a great football team, but we proved to a lot of people that we deserve a lot of respect, too."

It might have come down to a crucial call in the third quarter. With Virginia Tech ahead 10-7, Randall appeared to connect with freshman wide-out Josh Hyman, who earlier had caught the go-ahead touchdown for the Hokies.

But instead of making what looked like a 25-yard catch inside the USC 15, Hyman was called for pushing off against Southern Cal defensive back Ronald Nunn. After getting the ball back by sacking Randall on successive plays, the Trojans went almost immediately to Bush for a 53-yard touchdown with 1:55 left in the third.

"I thought the interference was a really big one," Beamer said. "You can't blame the officials. "I don't know how you all saw it, but I thought it was kind of questionable. I thought it was a great play."

Said Carroll: "I thought it was a pretty legitimate push. It helped us."

In the end, the difference last night was Bush. He took a short pass over the middle in the first quarter and turned it into a 35-yard touchdown. After the Hokies had moved in front in the second quarter, he caught the 53-yard score behind the Virginia Tech defense.

Bush finished with 127 yards on five catches, and 214 all-purpose yards.

"Coach expected a lot out of me, my teammates expected a lot out of me and I expected a lot out of myself," Bush said.

Asked about falling behind at halftime, Bush said, "I thought it was a wakeup call. We came out kind of raggedy, and we had to regroup. Once we were able to do that, we were OK."

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