Daunting Foe Awaits Arkansas

LOS ANGELES -- By now, you're familiar with most of the numbers.

Southern Cal, bidding to win an unprecedented third straight national championship, has won 23 consecutive games; has won a school-record 21 straight home games; and has been ranked No. 1 by The Associated Press for 21 straight polls.

Unless Arkansas upsets USC this Saturday, the Trojans will break their current tie with the 2001 and 2002 Miami, Fla., teams by being ranked atop the AP poll 22 straight times.

Partly for the chance to make history, Trojans lefty quarterback Matt Leinart, already the recipient of a Heisman Trophy, decided to return for his senior season. He already leads the nation with a 224.1 passing efficiency rating in 2005.

Steve Smith, a junior wide receiver for USC, also leads the country with his 185 yards in receptions for one game.

USC, which urges media not to refer to it as Southern Cal, generated enough buzz with its opening 63-17 win at Hawaii that as of last Friday, all but about 4,000 tickets had been sold for the Arkansas game in the 92,000-seat Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Last year there were just three sellouts out of six USC home games -- for California, Arizona State and Notre Dame -- but officials expect a sellout this week.

Arkansas, which trails USC 2-1 in the series, won 22-7 the last time these two teams played in 1974. So USC, which won a national title that year, still has a 31-year-old grudge to settle with the Razorbacks.

USC senior tight end Dominique Byrd, a candidate for the John Mackey Award signifying the best college tight end in the land, has his own score to settle.

Byrd was benched by Trojans coach Pete Carroll for the second half of the Hawaii game, after throwing the football at a Rainbows defender after a reception.

"I shouldn't have lost my composure," said Byrd, who will surely be trying to make up for lost time (and catches) against Arkansas.

Smith once broke Byrd's jaw in a dispute over a debt Smith owed Byrd for losses in video games, but the Trojans seem to be one big, happy family again.

They're nearly halfway to Oklahoma's NCAA record of 47 consecutive victories. Assuming they win on Saturday, the halfway mark to tying that streak would come at halftime against Arkansas.

But USC nose tackle Sedrick Ellis is taking nothing for granted.

Comparing Arkansas to Hawaii, which uses a run-and-shoot offense, Ellis said about the Razorbacks, "They're more hard-nosed. They come right at you more and they don't try to disguise things much."

Carroll, a former UA graduate assistant, also addressed a concern about the ability of USC's defensive line to stop the run.

"I'm waiting to se how we play," Carroll said. "We still have to play against some normal teams."

Arkansas would appear to be abnormal, having lost at home to Vanderbilt despite still leading the nation in rushing with 338.5 yards per game.

"Arkansas is a great rushing football team," Carroll said. "They've made a great commitment to it. We pride ourselves on defense, but this will be one of the great challenges we've had."

The Trojans, with Leinart and flashy running backs Reggie Bush and LenDale White, have all the pizzazz you would expect from a team in Tinseltown.

Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated wrote recently, "USC is the coolest place in America to play college football."

Bush, who returns punts and kicks, expressed his joy over returning punts this way: "A punt return is almost like freedom of speech. You get to go out and do whatever you want. I get to express me -- my athleticism, my personality, the type of player I am."

The type of player Bush is might be good enough to earn a Heisman if he weren't surrounded by Leinart and USC's other high-powered threats. He almost gets lost in the shuffle.

But Washington State coach Bill Doba said about Bush, "If you've got a linebacker covering him, you might as well start singing their fight song."

That would be "Fight On," as distinguished from "All Hail," the USC alma mater, the words to which are written so that students can read them while descending the elevator in the school's bookstore.

More songs may be forthcoming if USC is able to "threepeat" for a national title in 2005.

But Carroll said, "That hasn't been a distraction, because we haven't let it be. It's been an obvious question, but it will become a lot more poignant later on if we're fortunate enough to be in that position."

The Trojans are used to being a target each week, Carroll said.

"Our No. 1 focus is to prepare at a high level," he said. "We know Arkansas can knock us off. They're a big-time school out of the South, and this is really a fun matchup for us."

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