For USC, playing Fresno State is manly but less than smart

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November 21, 2005|By CHRIS DUFRESNE | CHRIS DUFRESNE,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LOS ANGELES -- Athought kept coming to mind as Fresno State jumped out to a 7-0 lead on Southern California, made it 21-13 at the half and took a 42-41 lead in the fourth quarter Saturday night.

Why, again, was USC doing this? The No. 1 Trojans, with history-making on their mind, needed to play Fresno State like they needed to replay that last down against Notre Dame.

The anatomy of this schedule-making really came down to machismo, an annual call-out by Fresno State coach Pat Hill finally answered by bring-it-on acceptance by USC coach Pete Carroll.

It's the kind of thing they do in pro wrestling, but not so much in college football.

In terms of the Trojans winning a third consecutive national title or maintaining position atop the Bowl Championship Series leader board, this game made little sense - win or lose.

Man, though, isn't Reggie Bush something? USC, of course, got away with all of it and won its 33rd consecutive game, 50-42.

Carroll seems to enjoy these nail-biting exercises and the thrill of the halftime adjustments, but you know it has to drive Trojans fans nuts.

When Oregon defeated Oregon State on Saturday in the Civil War, USC had already clinched a share of the Pacific-10 Conference title and the automatic BCS bid - no matter what happened against Fresno State and what happens against UCLA in two weeks.

The Trojans are after posterity, though, and this Fresno State venture was always going to be a scary proposition.

USC didn't have to do this, not this deep into November on its way to trying to become the first team to win three consecutive Associated Press national titles.

Here's some advice: The next time Temple pulls out of a game and you need a replacement to fill out your nonconference schedule, see if Weber State is available.

Having already booked Arkansas and Notre Dame for 2005, USC did not need to gamble on playing Fresno State, a school with a chip on its shoulder and one that was begging for this fight like a kid on a corner.

Thirteen years after shocking USC in the Freedom Bowl, the Bulldogs and their Red Wave rumbled in a caravan of buses down Interstate 5 for the second game in the series.

USC wanted payback, more than a decade after maybe one of the most humiliating defeats in school history.

Fresno State was interested in a play back, and it all made for interesting nonconference drama the week before Thanksgiving.

Fresno State's Hill, to his credit, has been challenging top-ranked opponents since he took over in 1997. It's the only way to make any national noise when you play in a conference like the Western Athletic, which has only limited access to major bowl paydays.

Saturday was the 20th nonconference road game for Fresno State since Hill became coach.

The Bulldogs' schedule, read out loud, sounds like that Johnny Cash-sung commercial: Pasadena, Columbus, Knoxville, Madison, Boulder, Norman, Seattle, Manhattan (Kan.).

They've been everywhere, man.

Fresno State entered the night at the Los Angeles Coliseum having won three of its past four games against Pac-10 schools.

Hill has already scheduled future games against Colorado State, Oregon, Oregon State, Washington, Kansas State and Wisconsin.

USC was hoping for an easy night's work and then two weeks off to prepare for UCLA on Dec. 3.

It didn't quite work out that way.

The night was also about settling another score.

Last week, USC had no problem with putting a 35-10 hurt on California, the last team to defeat the Trojans before they went on a 32-game winning streak.

Fresno State handed USC one of its most humiliating defeats, 24-7, in the 1992 Freedom Bowl.

That loss sent shock waves through the Trojans' program and allowed the Bulldogs to become one of 10 schools to hold a series advantage over USC, never mind that the advantage was 1-0.

An ugly chapter in USC lore? The Los Angeles Times' headline the day of that 1992 bowl game was, "Trojans are expected to beat Fresno State tonight at Anaheim Stadium."

The late Mal Florence, a USC graduate and longtime Times staff writer, was asked at the time why he did not attend the Freedom Bowl.

"Somebody might see me," Florence said.

Fresno State didn't just win that night; it dominated a Trojans team that featured quarterback Rob Johnson and receiver Johnnie Morton and defensive star Willie McGinest, who is currently winning Super Bowl rings with the New England Patriots.

Fresno State amassed 405 total yards while USC managed only 183 against the nation's 98th-ranked defense.

USC coach Larry Smith made perhaps the biggest mistake of his career when he said losing to Fresno State was not as big a deal as many were making of it.

Smith said he was not shocked by the defeat.

"I don't think there are any David and Goliaths anymore," Smith said. "Names and logos don't mean anything. You don't beat someone just because of your name and logo."

Smith said that on a Tuesday night, Dec. 29.

He was forced to resign the following Friday.

Thirteen years later, Pete Carroll had no such worries.

Chris Dufresne writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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