Coach Pete Carroll and his squad are coming off a season in which they destroyed cross-town rival UCLA, but struggled against Utah in a bowl game. That finish raised questions about his team heading into the 2002 season. Carroll says his Trojans are ready to get the football season started on Monday after having a productive preseason.
"We think this is a tremendous opener," says Carroll. "It's one that has really captured the attention of our players and fans. The fact that we're playing on Monday night football in the coliseum, for us that's really exciting. We're really looking forward to it and have been building towards it all offseason. It's just one of those games that absolutely captures you."
Souther California's head coach, Pete Carroll, is shown following his team's victory over UCLA last season. (AP Photo)
Quarterback Carson Palmer (6-6, 230) returns for the 2002 season as one of the most decorated quarterbacks in the illustrious history of the position at USC, but also as one of the most mysterious. Entering the season just 839 yards away from breaking Rodney Peete's all-time school record for total offense and ahead of such notable quarterback names as Todd Marinovich, Sean Salisbury, Pat Haden and Vince Evans, Palmer has been an enigma in his career. Although he's been very productive under center in terms of yardage with the second and fourth best single-season yardage totals in school history the last two seasons, he has also been prone to throwing the ball to the opposition.
For Palmer's career he has 39 touchdowns, but also 39 interceptions. Last season he threw for 2,717 yards with 13 touchdowns, but had 12 interceptions. Those totals will have to improve for the Trojans this season if they hope to take the next step back towards prominence in the Pac-10.
"Carson Palmer has been an extremely productive performer over the years," Carroll notes. "We're hoping that we can put together a team around him that can support him with good balance and strength so that he can be the star player he's capable of being. He's always put up great numbers. Now we need to put a great team around him and show the country what kind of player this kid is."
Trojan quarterback Carson Palmer is one pace to be the top passer in USC history.
Palmer has the luxury of throwing to perhaps the most underrated wide receiver in the country in senior Kareem Kelly. The 6-0, 190 Kelly enters the 2002 season fifth all-time in receptions at USC with 158, just 43 catches behind the school record of Johnnie Morton. With 2,499 career receiving yards he's also on pace to top Morton's total of 3,201. In his first three years he's had reception totals of 54, 55 and 49 last season with yardage totals of 902, 796 and 801. With 11 career touchdowns he's also been able to find the end zone with regularity. If Auburn hopes to keep the Trojans from flying high, containing the lightning fast Kelly will be the first priority.
However, Morton is not the only receiving weapon at Palmer's disposal with junior Keary Colbert (6-1, 205) and senior Grant Mattos (6-3, 225) returning to form one of the top units in the Pac-10. Colbert caught 34 passes for 442 yards and two touchdowns last fall while Mattos comes off a junior season in which he fought injuries to catch just 10 passes for 104 yards. At tight end junior Alex Holmes (6-3, 265) enters his first season as a starter after a solid sophomore season with 22 catches and two touchdowns. He will be challenged for playing time by junior Greg Guenther (6-8, 245).
Fast is the word to describe probable starting tailback Sultan McCullough. After an injury cut short his 2001 campaign, the speedster is back to take over the job for his last year as a Trojan. The Pac-10 sprint champion in 1999 and second-place finisher in 2001 with a time of 10.41 in the 100 meters, he has been labeled the fastest running back to ever play for USC. McCullough is a 6-0, 190 burner who can run with power, but likes to get to the outside and use his speed to outrun the defense. With nine career 100-yard games to his credit McCullough hopes to end his career on a high note with a strong senior season.
He won't be the only talented runner in the Trojan backfield though as transfer Justin Fargas returns home after starting his career as a Michigan Wolverine. The most highly sought prospect in the country coming out of Notre Dame High in Sherman Oaks, Calif., in 1998, Fargas battled injuries for three seasons before deciding to move back closer to his California upbringing to finish his football career. Now a senior, the 6-1, 210 blazer hopes to regain the form that saw him rush for nearly 6,000 yards and 73 touchdowns his final two years of high school.
That may be a problem this year as once again he's battling injuries, this time a hamstring pull. While he may play in the opener, it's doubtful that he'll be full speed putting the running game in the hands and feet of McCullough and backup Malaefou MacKenzie, who has rushed for 765 yards in his career as a Trojan but has the talent to take over a game at any time.
Just like Auburn quarterback Daniel Cobb, MacKenzie was granted a rare sixth year of eligibility because of medical problems in his career at USC and has been strong in preseason practice with both McCullough and Fargas battling injuries. He's expected to receive a good deal of playing time and is listed as a second-teamer heading into Monday's opener with sophomore Darryl Poston (5-11, 190) and true freshman Hershel Dennis (5-11, 175) also in the mix.
At fullback seniors Sunny Byrd (6-0, 215) and Chad Pierson (6-1, 240) are expected to share the load with the smaller Byrd the running and receiving threat while Pierson is the classic lead blocker. Help could also come from former high school standout Brandon Hancock (6-1, 235).
While the tailback position gets the most acclaim in USC football lore, nowhere have the Trojans been more successful at putting out quality players than on the offensive line. With 26 first team All-Americans since 1964 and 19 first round draft choices in the NFL since 1968, the Trojans have perhaps the greatest history of offensive linemen in the country. The 2002 group has a long way to catch up to those high standards though. Veteran redshirt juniors Jacob Rogers (6-6, 305, LT), Lenny Vandermade (6-3, 275, LG), Norm Katnik (6-4, 280, C) and Eric Torres (6-5, 300, RT) welcome a true freshman to the fold this fall in high school All-American Fred Matua with. The group hopes to improve an anemic offensive output in 2001 when USC finished in the bottom four of every offensive category in the Pac-10.
Matua earned the start in the opener with senior guard Zach Wilson (three-year starter) out with a sprained foot suffered on the opening day of fall practice. While injuries at the tailback spot had a major role in causing the offensive problems, inconsistent play up front also played a big part.
This group hopes to improve in its second year under offensive coordinator Norm Chow. The architect of explosive offenses at both BYU and North Carolina State in his career, Chow implemented his system last season, but the Trojans struggled to make it work.
One thing Chow teams have always been good at is ball control, even in the passing game. Last season USC had just 19 turnovers, which allowed the Trojans to compensate for an up-and-down offense that had three games of over 40 points but also five games under 20 points. Included in that figure is USC's 10-6 loss to Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl when the Trojans had just one yard rushing and and 150 yards passing to leave a sour taste in the mouths of offensive players heading into 2002. If McCullough, MacKenzie and Fargas can bring the game-breaking ability back to the table for the Trojan running game, Monday night could be a tough matchup for the Auburn Tigers. If none can get the job done and USC is one dimensional, it could be lights out for the home team to begin a new year.
"It's a huge concern as far as the well-being of our football team that we run the ball," Carroll notes. "We've got to get this done. We've got to have some consistency and some balance to our offense. We are extremely different than we were a year ago. We have five tailbacks with four guys ready to go in this game right now (with the exception of Fargas) that are ahead of the guys we played last year once we got in the middle of our season. I'm hoping the competitive environment there will really bring out great plays from guys that get in the game. They can't all get the ball, but they certainly all can do something and contribute. That should make a big difference for us."
How much of a difference remains to be seen, but in one week everyone in the country will know as the Auburn Tigers travel to California to play the Trojans in front of a national television audience on ABC. Kickoff for the game is scheduled for 7 p.m. CDT and 5 p.m. local time in Los Angeles.