Northern Exposer

Lofa Tatupu, USC's New England-bred inside linebacker, is the real leader of the Trojan defense.

Following the Trojan's 31-28 squeaker over the half-mighty Stanford Cardinal, the talk from players, fans and alumni was all about the true leader of this team, the Trojan's Hollywood Heisman Trophy candidate, Matt Leinart. And Leinart did have a stellar performance. He completed 80% of his passes en route to his first 300-yard performance of the season, and helped lead two second-half touchdown drives that contributed to the win.

What many fail to realize is that the offense wasn't that productive in the second-half turnaround. Fourteen total points were the fewest the Trojans have scored in the second half this entire season. So what made the real difference? A halftime locker room scene unrivaled throughout the country, and an out-of-this-world performance by the Trojan defense. One unsung hero played a major part in both events.

After J.R. Lemon's backbreaking 82-yard touchdown run to give Stanford a commanding 28-17 halftime lead, one would expect to see the defense return to the locker room with their heads down, visibly beaten, but not these Trojans. This proud defense kept pushing on thanks to a suddenly vocal leader – Lofa Tatupu. Tatupu, the often reserved inside linebacker from Plainville, Massachusetts, did anything but hold back in the locker room.

The halftime rally inside the Trojan locker room was all that the players wanted to talk about after the game. Reggie Bush said, "It was the most fired up I've ever seen our team." Matt Leinart called the scene, "Crazy," and, "Intense."

Even Coach Carroll proclaimed, "There was really a tremendous energy at halftime, that our guys were gonna turn this game around. In their young minds, there was no doubt." Carroll was as surprised as anyone about the fiery atmosphere, "By the time we got in the locker room, I was really excited about our chances." Matt Leinart and John Drake joined Tatupu as articulate leaders during the halftime assembly, and all had one simple message; USC will not lose this game.

Leinart and Drake upheld their end of that bargain, leading the Trojans to the two touchdowns necessary for the win but those two touchdowns would have meant little for the Trojans if not for one of the most dominating second half performances by a USC defense in the last two decades. After giving up 291 yards to Trent Edwards and company in the first half, the Cardinal offense stalled. You call it Buddy Teevens' conservative play-calling, I call it a gutsy performance by the Tatupu-lead defense.

The Trojan D allowed 36 total yards and two first downs, limiting Trent Edwards to a 3 for 9 2nd half performance. Compare that with his 20 for 26 performance in the first half. The USC defense also held the Cardinal scoreless in the second half, which kept their second half scoring defense total at ten points for the season. Ten points. In four games. In eight quarters. Those are unreal numbers this day in age in college football. And while the schedule hasn't been overwhelmingly difficult, it has been no cakewalk.

Tatupu, certainly the defense's emotional leader, is the overwhelming statistical leader as well. Tatupu has led the Trojans in tackles every game so this far this season, including 10 tackles and a forced fumble against the Cardinal this weekend. In fact, dating back to last season, Lofa has led USC in tackles in six consecutive contests, with the crowing performance coming in last year's Rose Bowl as Tatupu compiled 12 tackles and an interception that setup the Trojan's second score. While Matt Grootegoed and Shaun Cody provide this defense's, "Senior leadership," Tatupu is the real heart and soul of this proud unit.

Who would have ever guessed that the University of Maine's, "Defensive Freshman of the Year," in 2001, would be the strongest and most consistent element of a national champion and now #1 ranked USC squad's stingy defense. Although he is listed as the Trojans middle linebacker, this guy is everywhere. Lofa can be the first guy in the defensive backfield or he can be the guy bringing down a wide receiver 20 yards downfield. Tatupu doesn't just slow a tough running back, an elusive wide receiver or a strong-armed quarterback, he stops him – immediately.

The biggest test for Lofa Tatupu and this often-stingy Trojan defense is but a week away, as the USC defense will have to stop talented players at all three of those positions. The University of California (at Berkeley) Bears have come out firing against the Trojans the past two seasons, and could certainly do so again this year, but the Bears have only scored 10 second half points in those two contests (Not including 10 overtime points in 2003). After the dominating 2nd half performance against the Cardinal, this proud defense isn't going to give the Cal Bears an inch in the second half.

Coach Carroll will make his second half adjustments. The Wild Bunch 2.5 will suddenly find their dominating pass rush. And Lofa Tatupu, the heart of this defense, will give an inspiring halftime pep talk, and not allow Aaron Rodgers and the Bears to even think about the end zone in the second half. Top Stories