LOS ANGELES - Coach Pete Carroll said his team's tempo wasn't right. Instead of an up-tempo jig, they were humming a slow-moving ballad. "It just didn't feel right," Carroll said.
Yet even in an uninspiring game at the Coliseum, No.4 USC demonstrated a couple of things rather definitively with a 28-10 victory over No. 19 Nebraska on Saturday. Get the ball to Dwayne Jarrett often enough, and it's hard to go wrong. And the defense might be so good this year that the offense doesn't have to dazzle every game.
"It was a good, solid win," Carroll said. "There are a lot of things we could do better. We had a lot of issues."
One of the Trojans' problems is not a lack of athleticism on defense. They ran circles around the lumbering Nebraska linemen, with sophomore middle linebacker Rey Maualuga - making his first career start - looking particularly fearsome. Maualuga painted the letters "RIP" into his eye black, and he showed little mercy toward Nebraska's ballcarriers.
Maualuga had 11 tackles, the most on the field. USC held Nebraska to an average of 1.9 yards per rush.
Nebraska boasted of its open, diverse offense all week, but the Cornhuskers managed just 211 total yards Saturday night.
Carroll wasn't exactly delighted with his offense, which managed 399 yards, but he gushed about his young defense. The Trojans dismantled Nebraska despite the absences of starting nose tackle Sedrick Ellis, safety Josh Pinkard and middle linebacker Oscar Lua.
"They played solid all night long," Carroll said. "They controlled the line of scrimmage and played really hard and fast all night. I was really proud of the style we played against a very tough, physical football team."
Meanwhile, the Nebraska secondary looked like Lilliputians trying to tackle and contain Jarrett, who caught 11 passes for 136 yards and sprinted into the heart of USC's thick record book. Jarrett's second touchdown of the night gave him 31 for his career, breaking Mike Williams' record and leaving him one shy of the Pac-10 mark.
Jarrett was simply larger (by at least four inches), more physical and more determined than Nebraska's defenders. Nebraska coach Bill Callahan called him a "monster." Neither of Nebraska's cornerbacks - including Andre Jones, who had predicted a Nebraska victory - had any luck trying to slow down Jarrett.
USC offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin had criticized Jarrett for a ho-hum performance in Game 1 against Arkansas, words the receiver didn't miss. Jarrett said his quadriceps was so sore in the Arkansas game that he was just trying to act as a "decoy" to get other USC receivers breathing room.
Jarrett got one look at Nebraska's secondary and figured he might have a memorable evening.
"Kind of, sort of," Jarrett said. "But we have a lot of weapons. You can't just double me all night, and we took advantage of that."
When the ball wasn't headed Jarrett's way, things weren't nearly as pretty. Carroll still hasn't picked a tailback he wants to handle the ball 20 times a game, and starting fullback Ryan Powdrell (Mission Viejo High, Saddleback College) broke his ankle in the first quarter, further clouding the Trojans' rushing plans.
Quarterback John David Booty acknowledged the offense isn't finding the end zone as often as "the guys did last year and all that."
Booty's performance - 25 of 36 for 257 yards with three touchdown passes - was solid, if not as spectacular as Matt Leinart in his prime. But Booty has made just two starts, and he has yet to throw an interception. The Trojans have not turned over the ball any other way, so they have that going for them.
And simply seeing Booty and Jarrett hook up so frequently was enough to give Carroll a boost of adrenaline, as if he needed an excuse.
Booty said the offense will improve with seasoning.
"We're really kind of a scrappy group," Booty said. "We've got a lot of young guys in there, too. Regardless of if it's by 40 or if it's by one, we're winning."
Callahan had sworn that his team's season wouldn't hinge on Saturday night's outcome, which was fortunate for him.
"Our guys competed hard against one of the best teams in the country," Callahan said, "but when you compete against teams like this, the margin for error is minute."