Anthony Sarao hasn't been home to see his family since March. Even if the 6-foot, 200-pound USC linebacker and New Jersey native squints real hard out the plane window, he probably won't get to see the Garden State this weekend when USC travels to Boston College to take on the Eagles.
But "home" will be coming to Sarao. With this being the Trojans' only regular season trip east of the Mountain Time Zone, Sarao said a large contingent of friends and family members are planning to make the six-hour drive up from his hometown, Egg Harbor Township, in South Jersey to Beantown.
Anthony Sarao is expecting his personal cheering section to be as many as 15-20 people, which means he's been fielding phone calls and ticket requests from across the country this week. And if Sarao continues to play the way he has through the first two weeks, that entire section will leave the game happy having seen their native son produce.
In the season opener against pass-happy Fresno State, Sarao only had one tackle, but collected a tipped pass for a one-handed interception -- the first INT of his career. But it was last week against No. 13 Stanford that Sarao was put in the spotlight.
In the third quarter, USC senior captain Hayes Pullard was ejected after being called for targeting on a hit of kick returner Ty Montgomery. Sarao had lost his "road dog."
Pullard and Sarao are the core duo in the middle of the defense as the veteran inside linebackers. The two are good friends, who talked a lot before the game about the feelings they each had two years prior when Stanford celebrated on its home field following a 21-14 defeat of then No. 2 USC.
"It was like a bad thing, but it was a great thing," Sarao said of Pullard's ejection. "It was terrible to see our senior captain leave the field, but then it brought a spark to us."
When Hayes Pullard was thrown out of the game, the onus was placed on his running mate to step up. A fired up Sarao accepted the challenge.
"Me personally, it got me riled up emotionally and it really pushed us through the second half."
The first play after Pullard was ejected, the USC defense recovered a fumbled exchange from Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan, negating a drive that was starting on the USC 32-yard line. The defense made two more big stops in the fourth quarter with Stanford's last minute drive ending with two sacks, including J.R. Tavai's backside takedown of Hogan that knocked the ball away to where Scott Felix secured it to lock up the victory.
"Just like we took this trip to the mountains early before the season, you got to be able to lean on each other," Sarao said. "Hayes went out. A couple of players were tired, but we just have to lean on each other."
On the Stanford's final drive, Anthony Sarao had two of his game-high 11 tackles. It was Sarao's second double-digit tackle performance of his career, falling one short of the career-high 12 tackles he had against the Cardinal last season.
This week, Sarao will be tasked with being a leader in the middle of the defense from the start of the game. Due to the nature of targeting penalties, because Hayes Pullard was ejected in the second half of the Stanford game, he must sit out the first half of the subsequent game.
Though head coach Steve Sarkisian said he could move Sarao over to Pullard's position, if needed, it will be Michael Hutchings who gets the start in Pullard's spot in the middle of the lineup. Hutchings will make the defensive calls, but Sarao will be there to help and guide him in any form needed.
"I got to be out there vocal. I got to let everybody know what's going on, so we're secure," Sarao said. "Hayes usually runs the show, but since he's out, I've got to step in and do that job."
The defensive players and the coaching staff have plenty of confidence in Hutchings filling in for Pullard as he did against Stanford.
"We don't sit around and talk about how much we lose," defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. "You have to look for the answers for what we need to do to get the next guy ready."
"The train never stops rolling," Sarao said, "so when [Hutchings] comes out there it's the same thing."
Watch the video at top to hear more from Anthony Sarao talking about the upcoming trip to the Northeast and how the defense stepped up against Stanford.