September 14, 2008

McKnight's a big game guy

The Trojans give the ball to Joe McKnight. He dances, he shakes and he runs - fast.

Whether a two-yard or a 20-yard gain, it's worth watching when McKnight gets going.

The Trojans sophomore running back slashed the Buckeye defense for big gain after big gain, doing work between the tackles and on the outside, helping lead No. 1 USC to a 35-3 win over Ohio State.

But after the game inside the Trojan locker room, there aren't any reporters around McKnight's locker. There are no television cameras, no questions and no answers.

McKnight's gone.

It turns out the same player who thrives in the spotlight on the field shies away from it off of it.

"That's just Joe," Allen Bradford said.

USC linebackers coach Ken Norton recruited McKnight at River Ridge, La.'s John Carroll High School, and he knows McKnight's not the biggest talker.

"I wouldn't say he's shy. He's just a little quiet," Norton said. "He's a heck of a football player. The more comfortable he is, the better he gets."

And that's a big difference in McKnight now and McKnight from a year ago.

When he first arrived, USC head coach Pete Carroll's eyes got wide after seeing McKnight's versatility, thinking of all the possibilities.

"We screwed up," Carroll said. "We tried to do so much with him, and it was too much."

Slowly, though, he got more and more comfortable. And, it just so happened, McKnight grew right in front of the nation's eyes.

First, there was the Rose Bowl, where McKnight hurt Illinois for a 206 all-purpose yards, including 125 yards on 10 carries.

Saturday, in what many dubbed "the game of the year," McKnight did more of the same. He took pitches to the outside and patiently found holes when he ran up the middle, finishing with 12 carries for 105 yards.

In the Trojans last two "big" games, McKnight's averaging less than 10.5 yards per carry.

"Joe's a great competitor. There's nothing too big for Joe to take on," Carroll said. "He's got a great attitude and a great will. We really expect him to perform well in these circumstances"

It's to the point where McKnight's teammates expect the sophomore running back to doing something special.

"He's so explosive. In my head, the only thing I'm thinking about when Joe's going to get the ball is 'Get it to him quickly, and make it as smooth as possible,'" Mark Sanchez said. "When he's got time and he's got space, anything can happen.

"He's an absolute stud. He's got that big play ability, and we're never surprised when he does something special. He can do it every time he touches the ball."

The Reggie Bush comparisons have been heaped upon McKnight since his arrival because of his explosiveness and versatility.

"He's done quite well with the expectations," Norton said. "Reggie Bush is Reggie Bush, and there will never be another Reggie Bush. But, he's Joe McKnight.

"The more you watch him play, you see that he's quite gifted. He can even do some things Reggie couldn't do, especially in the passing game."

McKnight didn't play much in the second half Saturday, suffering from migraine headaches. The damage, though, was already done.

And instead of sitting in the locker room, basking in the glory of a big win in front of a huge audience, McKnight packed his things and headed home.

His talking came on the field.

"Football is really his stage," Norton said. "It's his chance to come out. He understands that and he does quite well."

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