Balance the key for USC


It's difficult to decide what's more surprising, that USC hasn't led the Pac-10 in rushing since 1981, or that Norm Chow's offense is the one that's leading the league on the ground this season. After rushing for 222 yards against Washington State on Saturday, the Trojans average 167.3 yards per game.

Chow, who is to quarterbacks what Jack Black is to hard-rockin' grade-schoolers, takes mild umbrage that anyone doesn't think he knows how to move the chains by handing the ball off.

"We always ran the ball at BYU," Chow, the offensive coordinator for 18 years there under LaVell Edwards, said Sunday night. "We had 1,000-yard rushers. I never understood that (passing) label. Especially with the toughness of this league, you can't be one-dimensional."

Having said that, even Chow is surprised by the Trojans' offense.

"We had 222 yards on 31 runs, and 214 yards passing on 32 passes," he said of Saturday. "It is a dream. It's been going that way most of the season. You strive for balance, but you don't sit there in the third quarter and say, 'Oops, we ran it five straight times. We better pass.'"

You can almost chart the improvement in the USC offense by the amount of experience the skill-position players have gained. Remember, when the Trojans beat Auburn, 23-0, in the season opener, the offense lived mostly on field position provided by the defense.

That is not the case any longer. Freshman LenDale White rushed for 149 yards and a touchdown on only 12 carries against the Cougars. Sophomore quarterback Matt Leinart has sewn up the starting job on the All-Pac-10 team.

"We're awfully young," Chow said. "The confidence level has improved. They are trusting what they are reading. Wow. It's scary. I thought this team was a year or two away. But, hey, they play hard. You might beat us, but you're going to play hard."

USC's decisive victory over Washington State, mixed with the losses of Miami and Georgia, has put the Trojans in the driver's seat for the Sugar Bowl. They were smart enough -- OK, fortunate enough -- to lose early in the season to California. That 34-31, triple-overtime loss got the team's attention.

"You have to win out anyway," Chow said. "Even if we were undefeated, we would still be second (to Oklahoma). We would still have to win out."

Something To Think About
Virginia Tech's victory, coupled with losses by Georgia, Washington State, Nebraska, Michigan State and Oklahoma State, means there are only six one-loss teams remaining among the six BCS conferences. Don't look now, but there's a possibility that a two-loss team could play for the Sugar Bowl. All six teams have games remaining against ranked teams or archrivals:

USC -- UCLA, Oregon State
Florida State -- North Carolina State, Florida.
LSU -- at Ole Miss, SEC championship (possible)
Virginia Tech -- at Pittsburgh, at Virginia
Miami -- Tennesssee, at Pittsburgh
Ohio State -- Michigan State, Purdue, at Michigan

The odds of all six losing are long, but then again, getting to the first week of November with only two undefeated teams is unusual, too. The scenarios of dealing with no one-loss teams from major conferences are interesting. Would the pressure of leaving an unbeaten, top-10 TCU team out of the BCS be too much to bear? If a two-loss Michigan beats undefeated Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, college football would be in the same position of every other sport: the team with the best record would not be the champion.
College football has never had a two-loss champion in the era of the polls after the bowls. Only three teams finished No. 1 in one of the two major polls with as much as a loss and a tie: Alabama (9-1-1) in 1965, USC in 1974 (10-1-1) and Colorado in 1990 (10-1-1). All three of them shared the national championship with another team.

The Rebirth of a QB Controversy
The Virginia Tech offense earned little of the spotlight in the Hokies' 31-7 victory over No. 2 Miami on Saturday night, but it will get a lot more of it in the next few days. For the first time this season, freshman Marcus Vick took more snaps (29) at quarterback than did starter Bryan Randall (20).

In the 28-7 loss at West Virginia on Oct. 22, Virginia Tech committed three penalties on its opening drive, went down into the Mountaineer end zone, and turned the ball over. Against the 'Canes, they barely improved, if you can call it that. The Hokies committed two penalties on the opening drive, went down close to the Hurricanes' red zone, and turned the ball over.

Two drives later, Vick came into the game, and he didn't leave until the fourth quarter. Vick didn't blow Miami away. Only after Virginia Tech scored the ninth and 10th non-offensive touchdown of the season -- a 28-yard fumble recovery by DeAngelo Hall, and a 51-yard interception return by Eric Green -- did the offense begin to find its footing.

"Rather than wait too long, get him in and see what happens," quarterback coach Kevin Rogers said. "I thought Marcus responded well. He was cool. We didn't give him a lot of offense to learn."

Vick led the Hokies on their one sustained scoring "drive" -- on the fifth play of a 59-yard drive, Vick laid up a beautiful pass that floated just over the right shoulder of Ernest Wilford for a 46-yard touchdown pass.

Vick threw only three other passes. He rushed four times, gaining at least 10 yards each time (his final numbers of six carries for 23 yards reflect two sacks). Like his older brother, Michael, Vick can pivot and accelerate upfield so quickly that even Miami had trouble containing him. Vick carries the ball as if it were a woman's handbag, which will cost him -- if anyone ever gets close enough to hit him.

Rogers has never believed in the Mack Brown school of two-quarterback offense, and Randall is still the starter. Still, Vick's performance in the eighth game of the season gave artificial respiration to a quarterback controversy that had been left for dead while Vick sat and watched.

Vick is more talented than Randall, and as he continues to remind Hokies of his older brother, he will only make the decision more difficult for coach Frank Beamer. What a great problem to have.

Nightmare in Lane Stadium
On the night after Halloween, Miami athletic director Paul Dee referred to the loss at Virginia Tech as "Nightmare on Elm Street." Horror aside, the 24-point loss and the lateness of the season means that Miami needs a lot of help to reach its third consecutive national championship game. The Hurricanes have four games left, two against ranked teams -- No. 17 Tennessee this week, and No. 21 Pittsburgh, on the road on Nov. 29.

"That's going to be the tough part now, to regroup," coach Larry Coker said. "I still believe we have a good football team. We've got to get better."

Coker said the defense played well enough to win the game, which is ironic, given that the Florida State defense played well enough for the Seminoles to beat the 'Canes on Oct. 11. It was the Miami offense that looked as if it were headed straight for the Gator Bowl.

"Tomorrow when we sit in the same room to watch the tape," center Joel Rodriguez said, "it's (going to be) hard to look the defense in the eye and say we lost. Those guys played their hearts out."

Brock Berlin made the decisions of an inexperienced quarterback, in part because of unceasing pressure by the Virginia Tech defense. The Hokies finished the night with four sacks, seven hurries, and nine other tackles behind the line. They took tight end Kellen Winslow away from Miami, frequently double-covering him so well that he made one catch for four yards in the first half. It was a risk that Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster believed was worth taking, because eight games into the season, the Hurricanes still don't have a wide receiver who can break open a game.

Freshman Ryan Moore caught two passes for 54 yards on Miami's first-quarter drive that ended in a blocked field goal, then disappeared. He made five more catches, but four of them came in the fourth quarter after Virginia Tech had taken a 31-0 lead.
Winslow finished with eight catches for 48 yards, as well as an idiotic penalty for shoving safety Brandon Manning's face after a tackle, one of five personal fouls committed by the Hurricanes.

Tailback Jarrett Payton, who finished with 69 yards on 18 carries, proved he has toughness and good hands (three catches, 41 yards). What Payton doesn't have is the speed of a Frank Gore. On the first play of the second half, Payton came around the right end on a sweep and had a lot of green grass in front of him. However, the Hokies pursuit cut him off after only a four-yard gain.

Miami made it to November on the strength of its defense and its spirit, one which, as tough as it is, turned out not to be indomitable.

Just F.Y.I.
My favorite theory of post-season infighting: the Rose Bowl, still mad that the Orange Bowl stole Iowa from Pasadena and held a Big Ten-Pac 10 game between the Hawkeyes and USC, will get even by selecting Miami this year. That's assuming that the Trojans play for the national title, of course. ... The pain of Kentucky's seven-overtime loss may last longer than the aches of this week. The Wildcats, 4-5, now must win two of its their remaining three games -- at Vanderbilt, at Georgia or against Tennessee -- in order to qualify for a bowl. ... Oklahoma wasn't the only place where a debt was repaid Saturday. Wake Forest tailback Chris Barclay rushed for 703 yards and nine touchdowns as a freshman in 2002, but he spent all year thinking about fumbling through the end zone in the fourth quarter, a mistake that kept Wake from tying Clemson in a 31-23 loss. Barclay scored the first two touchdowns of the game in the Deacs' 45-17 defeat of the Tigers. With 163 yards Saturday, Barclay has rushed for 748 yards this season and has four games to go, assuming the 5-4 Demon Deacons get a bowl bid.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.