SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Four years ago, linebacker Casey Matthews would have given anything to be a USC Trojan.
Now he’s thrilled he’s not.
Matthews, whose family bloodlines run deep Cardinal, has won 41 games wearing the green and gold of Oregon.
The unbeaten Ducks play Auburn in the biggest game in school history – the BCS national championship – Monday night at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Trojans, meanwhile, are in the midst of a postseason ban.
“If you look at it now, I definitely chose the right school,” Matthews said Wednesday. “They’re going through their issues right now. We’re playing for the BCS title. I couldn't ask for a better ending.”
The way his college career started was curious to some. Being an All-American at USC seemed to be a birthright. Casey is the son of Trojans standout Clay Matthews and the nephew of Bruce Matthews, another former USC star. Both went on to distinguished careers in the NFL. Casey’s brothers Clay and Kyle also played at USC, and Clay has become a pass-rushing force for the Green Bay Packers. Clay Sr. and both of Casey’s brothers won national championships as Trojans.
But Casey did not receive a scholarship offer from USC, which instead signed touted linebacker Chris Galippo. So Casey made his way to Eugene and has become a pivotal part of the Pac-10’s current “It” program.
A bit undersized at 6 feet and 215 pounds coming out of Oaks Christian in the Los Angeles suburb of Westlake Village, Casey has grown to 6-2 and 244 pounds. He has the same flowing locks hanging out the back of his helmet as brother Clay and a desire to show he, too, can play at the next level. He is projected as a fourth- or fifth-round pick in the 2011 NFL draft.
Clay, once a walk-on at USC, has provided plenty of inspiration for his younger brother.
“He doesn’t give me advice,” Casey said. “He usually gives me goals. Get a turnover or a sack.
“Watching how he trains, his work ethic, his mental discipline – if I can do half of what he does, I will be successful. His mindset … he always feels like he’s the underdog.”
Casey, too, seems to feed off being lightly regarded. He has become the mainstay of an underrated defense that ranks 26th nationally. This season, he leads Oregon with 73 tackles, is second in sacks with three and has three interceptions and three fumble recoveries. With Casey as a quiet leader, Oregon is a win away from making history.
“He’s not really a rah-rah guy,” Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti said. “He doesn’t do a lot of talking. He doesn’t toot his own horn. But he’s a rock for our defense. He’s a pillar.”
Standing in the way of the Ducks is a guy who has turned rocks into rubble, speedy and strong Auburn quarterback Cam Newton.
“He’s going to be tough to tackle,” Matthews said of the Heisman winner. “He’s not your ordinary quarterback. He’s 6-6, 250. He has a pretty powerful stiff-arm. We need to wrap him up and work on fundamentals. We know he’s a very tough runner. He’s not like most quarterbacks. He’ll lower his shoulder and try to get those extra yards.”
Though slowing Newton will be a key to the title game, it will not be a task that rests on any one Oregon player’s shoulders. Matthews said he is prepared to do his part.
“It will depend what the defensive call is,” he said. “We won’t necessarily have a spy, but we will bring some defensive pressure.”
Count on Matthews to put heat on Newton. His developing skills as a pass rusher are a sign of his experience and maturation as a player, Aliotti said.
“Just seeing things and understanding the defense have made him better,” Aliotti said. “He’s played faster because he’s done it more times and it’s become second nature.”
Matthews said he has no regrets that he wasn't able to follow in the footsteps of his dad, uncle and siblings at USC. He’ll keep riding the karma that has him and the Ducks 60 minutes from capturing the BCS crystal ball and ending the SEC’s run of four consecutive national championships.
Four years ago, who would have thought the Ducks would be sharing the game’s biggest stage with the Tigers? Who knew the Trojans would be serving the first of a two-year bowl ban in the wake of an NCAA investigation that found former running back Reggie Bush had accepted improper benefits?
To win it all, Oregon will have to handle the embattled Newton, who continues to be investigated by the NCAA after findings that his father, Cecil, solicited money from Mississippi State for his son’s services. To the puzzlement of many, Cam is in the clear for the championship game.
That doesn’t bother Casey Matthews. He’s content to make the most of his opportunities wherever and whenever they come.