- Ivan Maisel, College Football Senior Writer
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USC intercepted Auburn quarterback Jason Campbell on the third play of the game and took over on the Tigers' 20-yard-line. Classic football strategy in that circumstance is to throw into the end zone. The defense isn't ready, and the psychological value of the touchdown is worth as much as the six actual points.
However, Trojan quarterback Matt Leinart turned around and handed the ball to Hershel Dennis, who ran into the line for one yard. In this case, USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow said, another classic football strategy won out. On Leinart's first snap as a starter, Chow didn't want him to do anything other than dip his toe into the water.
"We wanted to make sure he was OK," Chow said of Leinart. Two plays later, Leinart made his first pass a five-yard touchdown to Mike Williams. Chow gradually let the reins out on the sophomore, who completed 17-of-30 passes for 192 yards, the one score, and no interceptions. No fumbled snaps, either.
"I think he did very, very well," Chow said. "He was under control."
Leinart remained in control after the game, too. "I just felt like I was out there at practice," he said.
Back In Style
When the trainers let senior Greg Jones take off his blue (no contact) jersey in the second week of preseason practice, there was a lot of excitement among the Seminoles -- at least the ones on offense. The defensive guys didn't care for it too much. They realized they no longer could run past Jones, posing for the big hit they would have delivered if only they had been allowed. Now they actually had to tackle the 6-foot-1, 246-pound Jones, who delivers more punishment than a drill sergeant with a migraine.
Jones proved as much Saturday night. He announced his return from ACL surgery performed less than a year ago by punctuating a run with a forearm shiver that separated North Carolina all-ACC safety Dexter Reid from his helmet. Jones finished with 59 yards on eight carries and one touchdown in a 37-0 shutout of the Tar Heels that signaled the Seminoles' apparent return to prominence. It's as simple as this: it was Florida State's first shutout since the fourth game of the 2000 season -- a span of 35 games.
Jones' Heisman candidacy may begin anew after he was swept off the field in the ninth game of the season a year ago. Behind him are sophomore Leon Washington and redshirt freshman Lorenzo Booker, the nation's top recruit in 2002. The 5-11, 185-pound Booker has got some Warrick Dunn in him. Corners Leroy Smith and Rufus Brown nearly sprained their ankles being juked to the ground by Booker during spring practice. Against North Carolina, Booker rushed for 87 yards and a TD.
If coach Bobby Bowden chose to, he could play old-fashioned, ground-game offense, turn his defense loose, and go a long way toward the BCS this season. No one expects him to give up on junior quarterback Chris Rix, who gave a steady performance (17-of-26 for 232 yards and one TD) on the road Saturday night, but with those tailbacks, Bowden certainly has some options.
No Ordinary Joe
There may have been more important touchdowns scored yesterday, but none anywhere in the nation brought more gratification than the 60-yard dash to the end zone by California senior tailback Adimchinobe Echemandu in the Golden Bears' 34-2 rout of Southern Mississippi.
Echemandu finished with a career-high 127 yards on 17 carries, and the gratification comes because he hasn't played since his second year on campus. He missed the 2001 season because he became academically ineligible, but don't make the assumption that he couldn't do the work -- Echemandu already has graduated with a degree in sociology and is studying toward a masters in education. He made the mistake of dropping a class, thinking he could make it up in the summer, but he didn't have enough credits during the academic year to meet the NCAA minimum.
Echemandu had all but won the starting tailback job in the spring of 2002 when he blew out a knee. There went the 2002 season. "There were times I didn't even think I would come back," he said. "I thought I had lost everything." Echemandu didn't feel like his old self again until late this summer, when he ran a hand-timed 4.34 40. That's fast for anyone, much less a six-foot, 225-pound bruiser.
Echemandu likes his given name but is called "Joe" by his friends. That he's even playing football is a product of the melting pot. His father, a pastor and teacher in southern California, is a Nigerian immigrant who prefers soccer. Once it became clear than Echemandu could earn a college scholarship by playing football, his father and mother began to tolerate the game.
With Echemandu's size and speed, if he shows any aptitude for the game this year, he'll get the interest of pro scouts.
Clarett Finally Gets It
Ohio State athletic director Andy Geiger said Saturday night that suspended tailback Maurice Clarett had run afoul of NCAA Bylaw 10, which demands truthful answers to the organization's investigators. Earlier in the week, he explained that Clarett just didn't think the investigation was all that big of a deal.
"I think he did not understand the fact that the compliance side of what we do is deadly serious," Geiger said. "He didn't take it seriously. He does now."
Wisconsin's Mack Daddy
The return of Wisconsin senior wide receiver Lee Evans to the lineup (after he missed 2002 with a torn ACL) went well Saturday. After a spring practice and three weeks of August work without being taken to the ground, Evans made seven catches for 70 yards and one touchdown in the Badgers' 24-17 victory at West Virginia. He also got tackled without getting hurt.
As happy as Barry Alvarez is to have Evans back, the Badgers coach is just as happy to have senior linebacker Jeff Mack in good health. Mack is the defensive quarterback. When he played last year, Wisconsin went 7-1, allowing 21 points and 351 yards per game. When he couldn't play because of a back injury, the Badgers went 1-5, giving up 26 points and 402 yards per game. "He made a helluva difference ... things like getting people lined up correctly. He's a physical linebacker," Alvarez said.
In Saturday's comeback win, Mack made nine tackles, seven of which were unassisted. The Badgers limited the Mountaineers to 300 total yards.
A History Lesson
As the USC players drifted toward their fans in the northeast corner of Jordan-Hare Stadium to celebrate the Trojans' victory, a big man wearing a tropical shirt festooned with USC logos gave out congratulations and hugged safety Darnell Bing and tailback Chauncey Washington. Sam "Bam" Cunningham came as an invited guest of the USC team because, on his last football trip to the state of Alabama, he made history.
In the 1970 season opener, Cunningham, a sophomore in his first varsity game, rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns on only 12 carries, leading USC to a 42-21 rout of Alabama at Legion Field in Birmingham. After the game, Tide coach Bear Bryant asked his good friend, Trojan coach John McKay, if he could borrow Cunningham. Bryant took him to the Tide locker room, got the attention of his team, and said, "This is what a football player looks like."
Legend has it that Bryant used Cunningham's performance as the wedge to make room for African-American players on his roster. The old joke is that Cunningham did more for integration in the state of Alabama in three hours than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did in 14 years.
"I accept the attention," Cunningham said Friday, standing on the sideline at Jordan-Hare Stadium shortly after USC concluded its walkthrough, "because there's no way I can get around it. We as a team did that. I'm the focal point because I scored the most touchdowns and gained the most yards. We as a team came down and did what we were supposed to do."
Thirty-three years later, Cunningham still recalls the uneasiness he felt standing before the players that his team had just dominated. "If I had been on the losing end, I'm not sure I would appreciate it," Cunningham said. "It was pretty intimidating. I'm not one to be thrown up there. But one icon (McKay) passed me to another (Bryant). What do you do?"
Auburn had won three of its last four games agains top-10 teams before getting shut out by USC. ... You may know that seven teams have won at least five consecutive games -- bet you didn't know one of them is Connecticut. ... Last year, the first time Georgia's Fred Gibson touched the ball, he returned a kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown. On the fourth play of the season opener Saturday, Gibson juked Clemson defensive back Justin Miller, who led I-A freshmen in interceptions last year with eight, to the outside, cut inside and easily caught a 56-yard touchdown pass.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Looking back at USC's Matt Leinart's debut, FSU's Greg Jones' return and a slice of history with Sam "Bam" Cunningham.