Trojans' D-line makes a statement

Originally Published: January 4, 2005
By Bruce Feldman | ESPN The Magazine

MIAMI -- A little more than 24 hours before the "Game of the Century," Ed Orgeron, USC's rottweiler of a defensive line coach, is bouncing around a second floor boardroom inside the Westin Diplomat hotel, grinning like a 12-year-old trying his best to keep a real juicy secret.

Orgeron normally is a keg of nervous energy, but today he seems downright giddy.

Maybe, you wonder, he already checked out to Ole Miss, the program he'll be taking over after the Orange Bowl?

Meanwhile, a trio of Trojan defensive assistants are seated at the far end of a long wooden table covered with play cards, Sharpies and a half-dozen platters of greasy cheeseburgers and fries. They each are dutifully jotting things down and making little jokes with such an upbeat eagerness that it makes you think this is probably what Santa's Elves look like in early December.

The whole scene just looks too peaceful. Didn't they know they were about to face a Heisman Trophy-winning QB, the most prolific freshman tailback in football history and an offensive line hailed as the game's best in decades?

No worries, though, USC -- as has been the case for the past two years -- indeed had it all under control for their showdown with mighty OU. By halftime, the Trojans had dismantled the Sooner machine so thoroughly, they could've given coach Pete Carroll the Gatorade shower right then and there.

They had forced OU quarterback Jason White into two INTs, bottled up Peterson for only 36 yards on 15 carries and held All-American wideout Mark Clayton to three catches for a measly 12 yards. Perhaps more importantly, they'd exposed Oklahoma's vaunted front wall as a plodding overmatched unit.

"It seems to happen like that every time we play one of these out-of-conference teams," said USC All-American defensive lineman Shaun Cody, who had gotten the best of OU's prized tackle Jammal Brown. "Same thing happened when we played Auburn and Michigan last year. Those guys just weren't ready for our speed."

The domination started right in the middle of the line where USC defensive tackle Mike Patterson, as usual, crushed the pocket and clogged up running lanes. That forced OU to do something very unusual for a line that had only surrendered seven sacks all season -- double team. That, plus the shift of reserve DT Manny Wright into the lineup, moving the 290-pound Cody to defensive end, overwhelmed a line that was losing the single-block matchups that it had been winning all season.

"We saw on film that all the guys they play against are these big slow linemen," says Wright. "We knew they couldn't handle us. It was easy actually. We had a tougher game against UCLA."

If that sounds brash, call it payback. All week Trojan players bit their tongues and just let the chips on their shoulders mount. The biggest slight was obvious. That was from Sooner DE Larry Birdine who called Matt Leinart "overrated," before slamming the Pac-10 and saying he didn't respect USC.

Then came all the experts saying OU would avenge their nightmarish effort in the BCS title game against LSU last season. Perceived or manufactured, the disrespect took shape.

"We felt like we were getting slapped across the face by all the reporters," said USC MLB Lofa Tatupu, who had 12 tackles, a forced fumble and a sack, chasing down ball-carriers from sideline to sideline. "This was definitely a statement game. So now I'm gonna tune in to watch what they're gonna say."

The rout was particularly sweet for Patterson and Cody, the two building blocks of the USC powerhouse. This was not only their last game as Trojans, but also the last game at USC for Orgeron, the coach who recruited them both to Troy.

"There was no way we could let him go out any other way," said Cody. "This was the perfect way to finish everything off."

Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His first book Cane Mutiny: How the Miami Hurricanes Overturned the Football Establishment is out in bookstores. He can be reached at bruce.feldman@espn3.com.

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