LOS ANGELES -- This is how elite football powerhouses are supposed to operate.
Just one week after seeing its top wideout Steve Smith go down with a broken leg, top-ranked USC found a suitable replacement. In fact, the Trojans appear to have actually upgraded. True freshman Dwayne Jarrett, a willowy 6-foot-5, 200-pound former prep basketball star from New Jersey, seized center-stage in a battle of Pac-10 unbeatens by hauling in three first-half touchdown passes in a 45-7 Trojan romp past Arizona State as USC extended its win streak to 15.
And even though the USC's defense did have eight sacks and held ASU to 243 total yards (almost half their average); and QB Matt Leinart threw four TDs and Reggie Bush caught a TD, threw another and appeared to have run a punt back for a third (referees ruled he had stepped out of bounds), it was Jarrett whose 5-catch, 139-yard, 3-TD game that was the most meaningful.
"He was awesome," Leinart said of Jarrett. "With Steve's loss still with us, it gave Dwayne a chance to be the go-to guy. I'm very proud of the way he stepped up and played today."
This was the breakout game many around the USC program had been expecting from Jarrett ever since word started to circulate this summer that Trojan offensive guru Norm Chow, not exactly the type to gush, said the big freshman might turn out better than former USC All-American Mike Williams.
In 7-on-7 drills Jarrett looked like he was toying with upperclassmen DBs displaying spectacular ball skills and body control. But then, the real games came and Jarrett wilted. He dropped passes, a half-dozen or so in his first three games. Worse still, he battled homesickness and openly talked about contemplating a transfer to a school closer to his home in Jersey after the season.
Last week against Cal, however, the Trojans made a concerted effort to get Jarrett into the game. They called two quick slants for him on the opening series and that paid off because he would snare an acrobatic grab in between two defenders on fourth down. "We wanted to get him over the hump," says USC WR coach Lane Kiffin. Smart move, especially since later in the Cal game, Smith -- the team's leading receiver -- would be lost -- most likely for the season -- with a broken leg.
Perhaps not so coincidentally earlier this week, Jarrett said he now thinks he will stay at USC. "I'm just focused about football," he told reporters. "It was just making an adjustment. I feel a little bit more comfortable." It sure showed on Saturday.
Expect Jarrett to become the go-to guy for Leinart now. Trojan coaches say Jarrett is much more than a long-ball threat. This is also a guy who can be dynamic after the catch in the broken field, they say. In high school last year he returned 15 punts, five of them went for touchdowns and he averaged 48 yards per return.
"Dwayne right now is getting over the hump," says USC coach Pete Carroll. "He's not just out there competing, he's making plays. He's a fantastic player. With Steve's loss, we had to go to him and he made some great plays for us today."
The Trojans came out firing Saturday, showing they were prepared to pump some helium into their air attack. Game-breaker Reggie Bush, listed as a tailback, was either in the slot or split out wide on four of the first six plays he was on the field. Tight end Dominique Byrd, just getting back into the playing shape after missing the first month of the season with a broken knee cap, also would be a factor. (Byrd finished the game with three catches for 49 yards.) Both added a much-needed spark to the USC offense and Leinart looked much more aggressive for it, throwing four TD passes, all in the first half.
But the big difference is Jarrett, especially since opponents have to focus on Bush wherever he lines up. That, of course, made life easier for Jarrett who took over when ASU couldn't provide undersized corner Chris McKenzie with deep help.
The Trojans have their fingers crossed that the big wideout will build off this game. Confidence can do seemingly magical things after all. Mike Williams, Jarrett's mentor, didn't really emerge as superman until his seventh college game, when he caught nine for 159 and three TDs against Washington. After that he, along with the USC offense, was unstoppable. Whatever the case, it looks like the kid from Jersey arrived just in time.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.