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Texas-USC will rekindle memories, but programs on far different planes now

Posted September 10th, 2017

The last time Texas played at USC, men’s athletic director Mike Perrin was a junior linebacker for coach Darrell Royal.

Fifty years ago, Texas opened the 1967 season ranked fourth in the country as bumper stickers around town proclaimed “’67 — Year of the Horns.” The trip to Los Angeles was a huge test for quarterback Bill Bradley and the Longhorns.

“I remember the big question going into that game was can O.J. Simpson play major college football,” Perrin said Saturday. “And it took about a play or two, and we all looked at each other and said he can play anywhere.”

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Simpson ran for 158 yards on 30 carries as the fourth-ranked Trojans captured a 17-13 win over No. 5 Texas, prompting Royal to say, “We’re an average football team at best.”

Texas linebacker Mike Perrin tries to tackle USC running back O.J. Simpson when the two teams met in 1967. Perrin is now the UT men’s Athletic Director. (AP Photo/Wally Fong)

Five decades later, USC and Texas meet again Saturday in the Coliseum to see where each program stacks up. The fourth-ranked Trojans (2-0) think they could be national title contenders. The Longhorns (1-1) are a team in flux at quarterback trying to find their way back to respectability.

Simply from a rankings standpoint, this will be UT’s biggest test since facing No. 4 TCU in Fort Worth in 2015. Prior to that, Texas faced No. 3 Oklahoma in 2011.

Texas is 0-4 in the all-time series against USC in regular-season matchups. The Longhorns did capture the one victory that mattered most — a 41-38 win in the 2005 national championship game at the Rose Bowl, a game many consider the greatest title game ever.

“USC’s a great team, obviously,” nickel back P.J. Locke III said. “But it’s just another opportunity, another game. We have a 1-0 mentality, and we took care of today and it’s on to the next one. We just have to trust our training and do our job. It’s up for grabs right there.”

This matchup gives Texas a mulligan of sorts. The Longhorns stumbled in their season opener after a nine-month buildup with new coach Tom Herman. USC is riding an 11-game winning streak with Heisman contender Sam Darnold at the offensive controls.

Herman had a knack for big wins at Houston. The last two seasons, the Cougars were 6-0 against ranked opponents. Herman would love another chance at a win that could garner national praise for his new program in Austin.

Herman and his Longhorns suffered through a difficult week after the 51-41 loss to Maryland in the season opener. That’s what made Saturday’s 56-0 win over San Jose State easy to digest. Texas righted the ship in convincing fashion.

Perrin didn’t seem fazed by UT’s uneven start. “Last week (against Maryland) was a disappointment,” Perrin said. “But that was then, this is now.”

The first issue on Herman’s plate this week will be quarterback. Should he start Shane Buechele or stick with Sam Ehlinger?

sam-ehlinger-texas
Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger (11) evades San Jose State safety Ethan Aguayo (31) during Saturday’s win over the Spartans. Ehlinger could make his first road start versus USC Saturday. (Nick Wagner/American-Statesman)

Buechele sat out against San Jose State to heal his bruised throwing shoulder injury suffered against the Terps. Ehlinger became just the 10th freshman in school history to start a game at quarterback. The Westlake product threw for 222 yards and got his first touchdown on a 1-yard flip pass to Armanti Foreman.

“I think we’ll know a whole lot more (Sunday), Monday and going into Tuesday’s practice who we’re going to have,” Herman said.

It’s a mistake to portray this as a quarterback controversy. Neither player has cemented their status. Buechele has thrown for 3,333 career yards but has a 5-8 record as a starter. Ehlinger’s just getting started.

“Shane and I are great friends,” Ehlinger said. “We’re roommates at the hotel. He told me, ‘Just play football and relax and do what you do. You’ve been preparing for this moment since January.’

“His advice really helped me,” he added. “I took a breath and played football.”

Either way, Herman is likely to keep a package for Jerrod Heard, who rushed for 39 yards out of a wildcat formation against the Spartans. “To be able to have that package the entire year, I think, is probably smart,” Herman said.

If that’s the case, the offensive coaches best work up a few passing plays for Heard. It won’t take long for defenses to key on Heard if they know he’ll never throw it. “I’m a running back who can throw a little bit,” Heard said. “My role is different than Shane’s and Sam’s.”

At least the Texas defense is headed west with some confidence after posting a shutout.

USC’s receivers won’t drop the long vertical passes thrown their way like San Jose State’s receivers did, though. The Trojans also have a far more dangerous running game with Ronald Jones II blowing and going. He’s averaging 6.7 yards per carry and already has five touchdowns in two games.

“I feel like we’re as ready as we’re going to be by Thursday, the end of the week,” cornerback Holton Hill said. “But mentally, we feel like we’re there. We’re ready.”

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com.

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