McKnight has emerged as USC's No. 1 running back

September, 9, 2009
9/09/09
6:04
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller


LOS ANGELES -- There's still an "OR" to the right of Joe McKnight's name on the USC depth chart, but it's mostly a wink at the Trojans' old way of doing things at running back.

McKnight is the Trojans' starting running back. His 14 carries against San Jose State were twice as many as any other Trojans running back, and it will be a surprise if he doesn't start at Ohio State on Saturday.
 
 Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
 Joe McKnight's workload against the Spartans indicates he's the Trojans' starting running back.
Allen Bradford might offer a power option off the bench. And Stafon Johnson might be the man near the goal line.

But McKnight is clearly 1A, whether coach Pete Carroll, who has long defended his backfield-by-committee approach, is explicit about it or not.

"We came out of camp with the thought that we wanted to really work Joe and see if we couldn't keep him in the game and get him more used to playing on a more regular basis and not spot play him so much and see if that wouldn't position him to make some more big plays," Carroll said after the Trojans 56-3 victory over the Spartans.

Carroll was even more vague during his Tuesday press conference when asked about the rotation.

"I don't know what that rotation was [against San Jose State] -- it was everybody played," Carroll said. "But we're going in with the same idea as we had last week. Joe, and you'll see a lot of guys play."

However the "rotation" is described, it worked against the Spartans. McKnight had 145 yards, including a 54-yard touchdown jaunt, and the Trojans finished with 354 yards rushing.

That long touchdown run was even punctuated by a flip into the endzone, which looked a lot like the guy McKnight grew up admiring: Reggie Bush.

McKnight told reporters he was really trippin' on that run.

When McKnight saw a terminally unhip media giving him knowing nods, he expanded.

"I was tripping ... I was falling," he clarified. "I didn't want to fall on the 1-yard line."

McKnight played the first two series before yielding to Bradford, but it's more likely McKnight went to the sidelines because he fumbled, an issue that has sprung up a few times during his career.

McKnight, however, returned for the next two possessions.

McKnight said knowing he'll get a handful of carries in sequence -- instead of a few touches here and there -- helps him fit into the flow of the game.

"It's always good to get into a rhythm in the game," he said. "You always want to get that home run hit, but you've got to be focused and get five yards here, five yards there. It will open up for you."

If there's a reason for the philosophy shift, which is subtle but clear, it's due to new playcaller Jeremy Bates, who intimated during the preseason that he wasn't a fan of not establishing a clear pecking order at the position.

Johnson finished with six rushes for 27 yards with two touchdowns. Bradford had four carries for 53 yards, most of which came on a 43-yard scoring run. Marc Tyler and C.J. Gable took over the position when the result was out of hand, combining for 109 yards on 12 carries.

Gable was the official starter in 12 games last year, so his status has slipped the most. Johnson led the Trojans with 138 carries for 728 yards in 2008.

Whoever runs the ball, he will benefit from an offensive line that doesn't miss many assignments and has a lot of experience with zone blocking. USC running backs were stopped for a loss only once -- Gable for minus-3 yards late in the game.

That said, the Ohio State defensive line is experienced and talented. It welcomes back seven of its top eight players from last season, and the unit has combined for 78 career starts.

McKnight will get first crack. But, if he's not effective, there still will be other appealing options.

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