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Foes face battle with inactivity

When the Orange Bowl kicks off tonight at Pro Player Stadium, it will have been 32 days since No. 1 Southern Cal and No. 2 Oklahoma played a game.

The Trojans defeated rival UCLA on Dec. 4, and the Sooners beat Colorado in the Big 12 Championship Game the same day.

That kind of layoff can sometimes lead to sloppy play by the offense. Despite the explosiveness of both sides, the Heisman Trophy quarterbacks, the dazzling running backs and big-play receivers, USC coach Pete Carroll sees more of a defensive battle. At least, that is what he hopes to see.

"I've always felt that no matter how high-powered the offense is, the defense really in these kind of settings can maybe be the biggest factor," Carroll said. "So we're going to try to keep it down to a roar if we can offensively and give ourselves a chance to be close enough in the fourth quarter to win it. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the game was pretty tight.

"But there's not an offensive coach on either side of this game who doesn't think we're not going to score points and put up big numbers. It's on the defensive guys to keep that from happening."

Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said the layoff was not a detriment.

"You just kind of pull yourself through it, and that's what we've done," Stoops said. "Playing in the Big 12 Championship Game kind of pushed us back a little bit. They (the players) had some time away early when we were recruiting. It's been a good base, and we've just jumped back into it when we got back down here and the players have responded well."

PELINI'S FUTURE: One of the coaches trying to stymie Carroll's offense will be Bo Pelini, Oklahoma's co-defensive coordinator. Pelini was on Carroll's staff when he was coach of the New England Patriots. Pelini, who last season was defensive coordinator at Nebraska, has been mentioned as a candidate for the open Syracuse job.

"I haven't really thought about it," Pelini said. "I'm sure I would be interested. You're flattered to have your name mentioned with these jobs. But my mind is so consumed with USC. That's all I'm thinking about right now."

REMEMBERING WHEN: Carroll joked that one of his biggest hurdles as coach at USC was getting past his introductory news conference. At the time, Carroll was not a popular choice to replace Paul Hackett. He had been in the NFL for 16 seasons, and twice was fired as a head coach. He had taken a year off before being hired by the Trojans.

But a telling time for the program was in his first season, 2001, when the Trojans were 2-5 and playing at Arizona. With the score tied at 34, Kris Richard returned an interception 58 yards for a touchdown with less than two minutes left to win the game.

"We were really close to going (in a funk)," Carroll said. "I remember we were in the locker room afterward and telling the guys we don't have to lose anymore."

USC finished the regular season with four straight wins before losing to Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl. The next season, the Trojans went to the Rose Bowl and defeated Iowa. They are 35-3 in the past three seasons.

_ BOB HARIG, Times staff writer