USC O-line matures into elite group

Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and Co. get the credit for USC's prolific offense, but don't forget about the Trojans' talented offensive line, writes Ivan Maisel.

Updated: December 2, 2005, 12:43 PM ET
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

USC already has set a Pacific-10 conference record for total offense with 6,284 yards, and the No. 1 Trojans (11-0) have yet to take the field Saturday against their crosstown rival, No. 11 UCLA (9-1), not to mention play in a bowl game.

There are two theories for this production. One, an extremely talented group of players has been together for two seasons; or two, the Trojans try to gain one yard for every word Fred Matua speaks per practice.

USC O-line
John Pyle/Icon SMIUSC's talented offensive line provides security for QB Matt Leinart.
"Our vocal leader," quarterback Matt Leinart said, perhaps straining to be polite.

"Just a loudmouth, the guy who talks," another Trojan said. Yep, that's Matua who said that.

Leinart, who, like any smart quarterback, hangs with his offensive line, marvels at Matua's vocal endurance.

"I respect Fred for that," Leinart said. "He works every single day. He doesn't take a day off. Every day, there's nonstop talking in warm-ups, on the field. He's always talking. He's just firing you up. He keeps you going. He talks a lot, and we enjoy it. He carries the team with the way he does that."

Asking Matua why the Trojans are so prolific isn't merely a case of going to the guy who will fill the notebook. He's one of the reasons, as he was about to say.

"They are the best at what they do," Matua said. "We know we've done a good job. The guys behind us are great players. We're very lucky to have a Reggie Bush. There's no [team] in the country that has a player like him. We're blessed to have a leader like Matt Leinart. … I don't want to brag, but if we execute plays, I don't think we can be stopped. If we do things right, we can't be stopped."

Take a quick look at the numbers. If USC's offensive production were a stock, the feds would have begun an investigation already.

The Trojans, with largely the same players as a year ago, have increased their rushing yards per game by nearly 40 percent, their passing yards by nearly 20 percent, and their scoring by nearly 30 percent. Wall Street watchdog Eliot Spitzer should be handing out the indictments any day.

Offensive coordinator Norm Chow and offensive line coach Tim Davis left for the NFL, yet the offense improved. USC's average of 571.3 yards per game leads the nation and is the second-highest total in Division I-A in the last 15 seasons. The Trojans average 48.6 points per game, and they have scored more than 50 in four of their last five games.

As USC prepares to face a UCLA defense that has given up at least 35 points in four of the last six games, the offense appears capable of anything. How can that be? The quarterback is the same. The running backs and the receivers are the same.

"We broke in a new offense and a new offensive line [last year]," Leinart said. "We played pretty well and dominated a national championship game against a more experienced defense. This year has been a little different. I think we've done an excellent job."

I don't want to brag, but if we execute plays, I don't think we can be stopped. If we do things right, we can't be stopped.
USC offensive lineman Fred Matua

That's how it should be with any team. The line gives credit to the backs, and the backs return the favor. In this case, though, Leinart might have a point. The biggest change has been right there in front of Leinart all season long. The stars are the same -- right this way, Mr. Bush -- but they have beefed up their security. An offensive line that learned on the job a year ago has matured and flourished in 2005.

"The O-line is awesome," Leinart gushed. "I think they are the best offensive line in the country. We've proven that with numbers, our running stats and passing stats. I have been so blessed."

You would say that, too, if you had time to check your e-mail before throwing. USC quarterbacks have been sacked 14 times in 11 games. A year ago, USC quarterbacks went down 25 times in 13 games.

Three of the starting five -- senior guard Taitusi (Deuce) Lutui, sophomore tackle Sam Baker and junior center Ryan Kalil -- made first-team All-Pacific-10 conference, as voted by the league coaches. Matua, another junior, made the coaches' second team. The other starter, junior tackle Winston Justice, is considered the best physical specimen the Trojans have.

But let Matua tell you. He's going to, anyway.

"I'm the leader of the O-line," Matua said. "Winston is an athletic guy. He can jump and run faster than any defensive end in the country. Ryan is one of the quickest centers in the country. Deuce is big, 360 pounds. Sam is the most technically sound. Put all that together. We feed off of each other. We take a little bit from everybody.

"Deuce will battle you. There's the way that Ryan dominates. I'm trying to be fast and play fast like Winston and be technically sound like Sam."

The most impressive line on the O-line's résumé is this: Baker, Lutui, Matua and Kalil have not missed a start since the beginning of the 2004 season. In a violent sport in which rosters turn over 25 percent a year, to have four guys start 24 consecutive games borders on the supernatural.

"You could see the progress. They've been healthy as a unit," coach Pete Carroll said. Justice, the fifth starter, served a season-long, university-mandated suspension a year ago for flashing a pellet gun at a fellow student.

"Winston came back after spending a year working out and getting stronger than ever," Carroll said. "He is playing a better level. He gave us the chance to move Deuce Lutui back to guard. He has given us great athleticism."

As Carroll faces life without Leinart, and perhaps without his junior 1,000-yard tailbacks, Bush and LenDale White, he might take comfort knowing that Lutui is the only senior on the offensive line. The Trojans have the foundation to build another prolific offense. With Matua talking, there are a lot of yards to be gained.

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

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com