CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Now that he's proven to himself that his knee is healthy, Mark Sanchez can settle into showing everyone that Southern California is in really good hands.
Sanchez threw three touchdown passes in his first game as the Trojans' true No. 1 quarterback on Saturday, leading third-ranked USC to a 52-7 victory against Virginia.
Just more than three weeks removed from a dislocated kneecap that kept him out of practice until this week, Sanchez showed no ill effects. He was 26-for-35 for 338 yards and directed the Trojans on three touchdown drives in the first 11 minutes. They rolled from there.
"It's exciting to know I got one under my belt with this whole knee deal," he said. "I'm back to 100 percent. I feel good and we're ready to start preparing for Ohio State."
While Sanchez plans to spend some of that time continuing the rehabilitation that sparked his remarkable recovery, it may be that coach Pete Carroll uses it to tweak some things.
The offense, for example, to make use of Sanchez's resourcefulness in the pocket.
"That's an exciting aspect of our offense that I felt like we didn't have the last couple of years," Carroll said, recalling a play when Sanchez ducked under a pass rusher and stepped into a long ball that hit wide open Ronald Johnson in the end zone for a 49-yard TD play.
"I think we all sense it," Carroll said, "and we've been excited about it."
The Trojans lead 21-0 very quickly and weren't tested, allowing Carroll to keep the offense simple in advance of their home game against the No. 2 Buckeyes in two weeks. Even this early in the season, the matchup figures to greatly impact the championship race.
"Knowing we have these two weeks to prepare means a lot, too," Sanchez said.
Sanchez, a junior, started three games last season, filling in for the injured John David Booty and going 2-1. Now, USC is Sanchez's team, and he made that evident in the opener.
"You can just sense that if you give him time back there, he's going to find guys and he's got a real attitude about him to take advantage of it," Carroll said. "It's his nature."
The Cavaliers could clearly use some of that swagger.
Virginia had former stars Tiki and Ronde Barber and Chris Long in attendance and a Scott Stadium record crowd of 64,947 on hand, but the Cavaliers had minus 15 yards on their first three offensive series and needed 25 yards in penalties on their lone scoring drive.
Virginia ran for just 32 yards and was outgained 558-187.
"The only way to bounce back from a game like this is to take it as a learning experience," tailback Cedric Peerman said. "We will have a lot of work to do in practice."
The Cavaliers' TD came on Mikell Simpson's 7-yard run late in the first quarter, after a 15-yard roughing the passer flag and a 10-yard pass interference call against the Trojans.
Virginia never threatened again and USC was nearly flawless behind its quarterback.
The Trojans drove 56 yards in eight plays on their first possession, with Stafon Johnson running it in from the 2, and took over at the Virginia 47 on their next possession.
"It felt good," Sanchez said. "I moved when I needed to and was really happy out there."
After another three-and-out for Virginia, C.J. Gable went off the right side on a fourth-and-1 from Virginia's 33 and cruised untouched down the sideline for a TD that made it 21-0.
In the second half, Sanchez hit Patrick Turner over the middle in the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown, and then rolled out and found Johnson all alone behind the secondary.
By then, fans were streaming for the exits.
Peter Lalich, who won the three-way battle for the Cavaliers quarterback job, hit on 18 of 35 passes, but for just 155 yards. He was intercepted once, setting up a USC touchdown, and came away with tremendous respect for the program that has won 11 national championships and been maybe the best program in the country since Carroll took over in 2001.
"Their speed was pretty unbelievable the whole game," he said. "It's something they have across the board, at every position, and they really were able to use it to their advantage."