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CONFIDENCE LOST? NOT WITH THESE TROJANS.

Byline: KEVIN MODESTI

STANFORD - So much for any hope that USC's close-call victory over Stanford was a humbling experience for the nation's top-ranked college football team, an eye-opener for an undefeated group that might have been feeling invincible, a useful lesson in the dangers of leaving it all to the second half.

The Trojans strutted off the field as usual Saturday evening after having to come from behind to beat unranked Stanford 31-28 in front of 55,570 fans.

They celebrated in front of their traveling rooting section as surely as if it had been a blowout and then whooped and danced their way to the locker room.

And there they verbally thumped their chests and proudly wrapped themselves in a newfound esprit de corps and the self-proclaimed identity of a ``second-half team.''

``Nobody was nervous,'' Reggie Bush, the tailback and kick returner, said of the locker-room scene at halftime, when the Trojans trailed 28-17. ``We had our heads high. We've been in this situation before. We know how to come back.''

Said quarterback Matt Leinart: ``It was just fun. I think we're going to build on this. We showed a lot of character.''

Said defensive tackle Shaun Cody: ``I know I've never felt as much a part of a team as I did tonight.''

Stanford made the Trojans sweat. Stanford made the Trojans bleed. Stanford sent a couple of Trojans backups to the sideline with injuries.

What Stanford couldn't do to the Trojans was knock the swagger out of them.

``In their young minds, there was no doubt,'' coach Pete Carroll said.

About 30 miles down Highway 101 from where the Giants hosted the Dodgers at 1 o'clock Saturday, the Cardinal was to kick off to the Trojans at 4 o'clock. The joke going around was that both games would be over a few minutes after 4.

Not so fast, said Stanford, a 22-point underdog but confident behind a quarterback who had put up Leinart-like numbers against San Jose State and BYU.

And the Trojans came out as shaky as they had been in the season's opening quarter against Virginia Tech, when it was understandable. Alex Holmes dropped a touchdown pass, and an 11-play opening drive produced only a field goal. Stanford drove across midfield and threatened to take the lead.

An interception of a Trent Edwards pass by cornerback Kevin Arbet, whose 66-yard return set up a Trojans touchdown and 10-0 lead, seemed to put things right.

But Edwards began to pick apart the Trojans' defensive backfield, the top-ranked team's soft spot. He hit Alex Smith, Evan Moore and Mark Bradford for 17, 20 and 12 yards to open an 11-play drive. He lobbed a pass over Arbet to Moore at the left flag for a touchdown.

What happened next made you wonder which was the No. 1 team and which was the rebuilding team. The Trojans went three-and-out. Stanford marched 15 plays for a touchdown, six different Cardinal players picking up first downs.

The Trojans' Steve Smith fumbled. Stanford marched seven plays for a touchdown, scored by holder Kyle Matter (Hart High) on a field-goal fake.

Down 21-10, the Trojans got one back, the amazing Reggie Bush going 17 yards around right end after being stopped at the line of scrimmage.

But then came the play that looked as if it might come to symbolize a perfect season slipping through large fingers.

On second-and-12 from its own 18 with seconds left in the first half, Stanford ran J.R. Lemon into the line for your basic clock-killer. Only the Trojans let Lemon pop into the secondary. Justin Wyatt gave chase and got a hand on Lemon's ankle. That was only enough to send Lemon staggering into the end zone. It was 28-17, and the would-be champions had 15 minutes to look themselves in the locker-room mirror.

``At the time, that was kind of a dagger,'' Leinart said after the Trojans (4-0) won for the 24th time in 25 games. ``We could have lost a lot of emotion. But we stayed up and came out strong.''

Leinart added: ''We know we're a second-half team - always.''

In truth, the Trojans' offense continued to sputter before a 51-yard Leinart-to-Steve Smith connection led to the quarterback's touchdown sneak late in the third quarter.

It was the Trojans' defense that came to life and held Stanford to only one gain longer than six yards in the second half. And when Bush cut and spun - and spun some more - to a 33-yard punt return to put the ball at the Stanford 41, the Trojans were on the way to a 2-yard touchdown run by LenDale White and a 31-28 lead with 6:15 on the clock.

Beating Stanford by a field goal should have sent the young Trojans into their bye week - before a much-anticipated Oct. 9 game against Cal - eager to review their shortcomings. They will get to that if the coaches have anything to say about it. Saturday, though, they were crowing about what they'd done.

Whatever obstacles they may face this season will not include a lack of confidence.
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 26, 2004
Words:849
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