LOS ANGELES - Taylor Mays' father played on Washington's defensive line in the 1970s and spent many hours with his son watching the Huskies play long after his career was over.

"They're like five minutes from my house. I grew up near the Washington program, went to all their games. We went to away games, too," the younger Mays recalled, mentioning Michigan and Nebraska as two of the trips he took with his dad, Stafford.

But Mays opted to leave Seattle in 2006 when it came time to go to college, choosing to play for Pete Carroll at Southern California.

"This was the best fit," Mays said. "It wasn't about having fun, it was about trying to make the most of myself."

Mays has been exceptional, becoming a starting safety for one of the country's best teams early in his freshman year. Clearly, he's better off than he would have been had he stayed home. But Mays takes no joy in what the Huskies have gone through.

"It's just tough, you have ups and downs," he said. "They have some good athletes, they're just young right now. They'll be good again, they'll be back on top."

After a brief pause, Mays smiled and added: "Not on top of USC."

It would be an even bigger shock than last year's loss to 41-point underdog Stanford if the Huskies come out on top Saturday when they face the Trojans at the Los Angeles Coliseum. No. 7 USC, favored by 44 1/2 points, has won the last six games between the teams, but by just 26-20 two years ago and 27-24 last year.

USC (6-1, 4-1 Pac-10) is 28-5 since Mays joined the team. The Huskies are 9-23 during that stretch, leading to the firing of coach Tyrone Willingham earlier this week, effective at season's end.

"I just think it's unfortunate," Mays said. "Great coach, great motivator. He'll bounce back, he'll be successful. I had a good relationship with him throughout the recruiting process. He was cool. Washington just wasn't the right fit for me."

While the Trojans are shooting for at least a share of their seventh straight Pac-10 title and trying to remain alive in the national championship race, the Huskies are one of only two major college teams without a victory this season, joining North Texas State.

Washington has opened a season with seven straight losses for just the second time in school history. The 1969 team started 0-9.

"Pretty unusual situation I'm sure, for those guys up there," Carroll said regarding Willingham's status. "It doesn't do anything to us, the fact that he'll be finishing out this season. Although we expect it will be an emotional outpouring, I would think from his team, his players, efforts to show good things and try to get a good win, have some good stuff happen."

Mays agreed, saying: "I think (the firing of Willingham) makes them dangerous. They're an emotional football team right now."

The Huskies are playing without quarterback Jake Locker, who broke his right thumb Sept. 27 in a 35-28 loss to Stanford. Redshirt freshman Ronnie Fouch has filled in, going 65-for-132 for 880 yards and four touchdowns with four interceptions.

Willingham said he's been pleased with Fouch's effort, but added: "I don't think there is any question that Jake Locker is a fantastic quarterback, fantastic man and a wonderful leader for our football program and it is almost immeasurable his loss to our program."

Carroll said he believes Locker, now a redshirt sophomore, was the best freshman to enter a Pac-10 school since he became the USC coach in 2001.

"I just admire the heck out of that guy," Carroll said. "It's just been unfortunate he's been banged up so much. It's rare that a guy can control the game as much as he did."

The Huskies averaged nearly 20 points in the four games Locker played in before being injured. They've averaged a little over 11 since he went out. Points don't figure to be any easier to come by Saturday, since the Trojans have allowed an NCAA-low 8.1 points per game.

Mays has had a lot to do with that.

"They run well, they are very physical, they cover the mistakes of one guy with their outstanding hustle," Willingham said. "The game is going to be a challenge of all the things that are surrounding it, but the No. 1 challenge of course is USC itself."

Carroll knows his team can't afford a slip-up to remain in contention for the national championship.

"We've got to keep moving forward, to improve," he said. "We have to play better and smarter. We have to find ways to accelerate the process of becoming experienced, making really good decisions when it comes time to."

All signs point to USC quarterback Mark Sanchez having a big day. He's averaging 245.3 yards passing to rank second in the Pac-10, and has thrown a conference-leading 20 touchdown passes. The Huskies rank last in the conference in total defense (479.6 yards per game) and have given up a league-leading 19 TD throws.

USC enters having won 41 of its last 42 games at the Coliseum.


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