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October 10, 2007

Game 6: No More Vanilla, Please

After a stunning defeat against Stanford, USC tries to pick up the pieces against Arizona.

The USC Trojans (4-1, 2-1 in the Pac-10), ranked seventh in the USA Today and Harris polls and No. 10 in the AP poll, close out a two-game Pac-10 homestand Saturday, Oct. 13, against the Arizona Wildcats (2-4, 1-2) at 12:30 p.m. (PDT) in the Los Angeles Coliseum and before a regional ABC television audience. USC is 24-6 against the Wildcats in a series that dates to 1916. The Trojans have won the past five meetings by an average of 26 points per game. Arizona is averaging just eight points per game in the past four contests.

A week ago, USC imploded with five second half turnovers leading to a shocking 24-23 defeat to Stanford. Meanwhile, Arizona lost, 31-16, to Oregon State in Corvallis.

Trojan Coach Pete Carroll is in his seventh season at USC (69-13, 44-8 Pac-10). Meanwhile, Arizona headman Mike Stoops (14-26, 9-19) is in his fourth season in Tucson. The Wildcats finished 6-6 a season ago, their best record under Stoops, but have faltered (again) under big expectations so far in 2007.

This week, I'm stepping away from my traditional opponent preview to talk about some of the big issues surrounding and coming out of the Trojans' loss to the Cardinal. Next week, I hope to be able to return to my regular column and inform you about the UCLA Bruins' worst enemy - the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

What Happened?!
Time and perspective is a beautiful thing when dealing with something like USC's 24-23 upset loss to Stanford on Saturday. As more than 85,000 mostly stunned fans streamed out of the Coliseum on an early fall evening, the recriminations for the appalling defeat could be heard far and wide. And, leave no doubt, from John David Booty's four second-half interceptions to the Trojans meager rushing efforts; from a blocked PAT to the defense's sudden inability to stop a Cardinal team that it had stifled for three quarters - there was plenty of blame to go around.

However, the signs of such an astonishing outcome are easy to trace. A poor performance in Seattle a week before left many question marks for the Trojans to answer - and the loss of center Kristofer O'Dowd, guard Chilo Rachal and tailback Stafon Johnson removed many of the key answers the Trojans may have needed on Saturday night.

One of my biggest concerns before the season was USC's offensive line depth, and the loss of O'Dowd and Rachal on the same play in Seattle brought that concern to the forefront. The poor play of the patchwork offensive line and the lack of an explosive running back allowed Stanford's blitzing defense to tee off on Booty and the passing attack. The return of Johnson would allow Chauncey Washington to settle back into the power back spot, rather than being the every-down back - a role in which he struggled on Saturday.

Another early sign last Saturday was the energy level of both the team and the crowd. I haven't seen a Trojan team take the field - nor seen a Coliseum crowd that laid-back - in many years. Ask anyone there, and they'll likely tell you the same thing - there was a "ho-hum" sense in the air inside that stadium at about 4:05 p.m. last Saturday that hasn't been seen in a very long time.

The play of Booty has been much discussed - in both sane and irrational ways. While it has been clear that Booty has a number of issues that preclude him from being mentioned in the same breath as recent Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart, his performance the past two weekends has many calling for his head. His four interceptions in the second half on Saturday (two of which the coaching staff contends were the fault of receiver errors) and the post-game revelation of a finger fracture suffered in the first half were all the ammunition needed by supporters of a quarterback change.

The Trojan passing attack, for all the heat on Booty, was also hampered by another deeply conflicted performance by receiver Patrick Turner. While Turner had nine catches for 83 yards, he dropped a number of passes that helped stall Trojan drives - most memorably USC's last-ditch attempt to get into field goal range. Turner's lack of consistency as the "go-to" receiver remains a huge problem for Steve Sarkisian and the rest of the USC offense.

What about Sarkisian - whose play calling in the second half was clearly affected by Booty's injury? The Trojans' offensive coordinator appears to have been most affected by the Trojans' injury bug, the receivers' inconsistency and Booty's recent interception penchant. For most of the second half (aside from big completions to Fred Davis and Ronald Johnson), it seemed that USC played in a conservative shell, leaning on its defense and just trying to escape with a victory.

Which leads to the final ignominy - the failure of the vaunted USC defense to close out the game against a poor Stanford offense led by a first-time starter who had been run ragged for three quarters. After the sputtering USC offense twice gave the Trojans a nine-point edge in the final 20 minutes of the contest, the defense was unable to keep Stanford at bay - allowing a 75-yard touchdown drive and then a drive leading to a field goal that brought the Cardinal to 23-17 - before succumbing in the final minute after yet another Booty interception.

Yes, there are question marks everywhere heading into this Saturday's tilt with Arizona. Answers to these specific problems will be required if the Trojans are to remain a factor in the Pac-10 race. However, some of these pointed issues that are crucial to USC's success in the week-to-week battle of the 2007 season point to larger overall questions that the Trojan program needs to face going forward if it is going to continue its Pac-10 dominance and its competitiveness at a national championship level.

Program at a Crossroads?
Many message board mavens and talk-radio callers would have you believe the Trojans' issues this week revolve simply around Booty and whether or not his backup, Mark Sanchez, plays against Arizona. While this has become a black-or-white issue to many Trojan fans, clearly the answers aren't quite so simple inside the USC locker room.

After all, it has to be asked, when Booty plays so poorly with a broken finger in the second half of, ultimately, the worst defeat of the Carroll Era - how little faith does this coaching staff have in Sanchez? Yes, I know he's preparing to start this Saturday, just in case Booty is unable to grip and throw the ball. Still, the question must be asked.

Of course, the answer (or answers) may not be as unequivocal as many fans - mostly those lashing out at Booty after his recent troubles - may want to believe. While many fans refer to Sanchez's "leadership" and "athleticism," it's hard for this writer to believe that anyone outside of the team really knows what kind of "leader" Sanchez may be. His athleticism, in comparison with Booty, is undeniable. However, the only fact available to those outside the program regarding leadership is this - Booty has been chosen a captain by his teammates each of the past two seasons.

This is not to say that giving Sanchez a chance is beyond reason, especially with Booty's injury. I firmly believe Sanchez should have played the second half on Saturday, and that he should start this weekend. A broken middle finger on the quarterback's throwing hand is simply not something for a coaching staff to mess with. However, if any staff has earned the benefit of the doubt, it's Carroll's over the past six seasons. In the end, Booty, when healthy, should remain the starter until he absolutely plays himself out of the job.

Where this debate actually piques my interest is how telling this seems about Sanchez's development in the system. It raises perhaps the biggest questions yet about player development in recent seasons and, especially, about the QB position in 2008.

For much of the past two seasons, there have been rumblings around the program about the lack of player development under the current coaching staff. Often discounted by program loyalists, those rumblings have remained muted - but the questions swirling around the Booty/Sanchez debate can only lead me to question Sanchez's development during three years in the program.

If player development - especially at the skill positions - is struggling, are the coaches falling into a trap of having too much depth and using game situations to try to develop some players who could actually be brought along better in practice? For example, while some of the inconsistency at wide receiver can be attributed to youth, why hasn't Turner seemed to improve his physicality and focus during his three years at USC?

At the same time, many would have you believe the coaching staff is busy playing favorites in some cases - Booty over Sanchez, for instance, or anyone over Allen Bradford. While coaches always have their favorites, I simply find it hard to believe that Carroll and Sarkisian would sacrifice their season or their credibility just to keep Booty in, or Bradford out. However, the overwhelming depth at certain positions and the idea of competing for your spot on a daily basis, could realistically lead to a number of things:
1. A lack of development for certain players in practice
2. Bitterness/disappointment from players who lose out in those competitions
3. A desire for coaches to use game time to see how certain reserves play
4. Certain leaders at various positions losing game reps and, perhaps, game sharpness
While USC has done a phenomenal job of keeping everyone - starters and reserves - on the same page during the Carroll Era, we may be seeing the first chinks in the armor of having so many top recruits in the program. Saturday, due to its injury problems, it seems USC would be best served by going exclusively with its leaders at each key position in order to create continuity and sharpness in the team's performance. Looking ahead, Carroll and his staff may need to reassess how to ensure maximum player development along with that valuable competition.

Another issue that struck me in the aftermath of Saturday's loss is the creeping - but nowhere near fatal - sense of complacency and entitlement that's hurt the program during the past season and a half. I don't believe the coaching staff has become complacent in its work ethic, nor do I believe it directly communicates a sense of entitlement to the players. After all, competition has always been the key to this program's success.

However, USC's performances against what many would consider lower-level teams in the past two seasons hint at this possibly turning into a much bigger issue if not addressed now. One of the things that can turn that tide right away - and is actually necessary if USC hopes to win the conference in 2007 - is for the coaching staff to ditch the idea of "playing vanilla" against so-called lesser opponents.

We've all heard it - and many, including myself, have even been proponents of the idea in the (recent) past. After all, the idea goes, why not hold things back that can be of great value against stronger teams so that they are unprepared when you unleash it on them? If you can get by with your "B" game and base plays against this week's pushover, it seems to make sense.

Well, USC just proved that it's not necessarily prudent to count on "just getting by." In 2007, if you lose to Stanford, there are no longer any teams you can count on "just getting by," so it's basically time to bring everything you've got. When you open up your playbook and allow your offense and defense to really attack, doesn't that mean your future (and, perhaps, better) opponents have more film to break down and more to prepare for?

On a bigger picture scale, such an attitude seems to be pervading the players more and more. After all, if the coaches don't think USC doesn't need its "A" game against certain opponents, why wouldn't a bunch of 18-22 year olds who have long been the cream of the crop in their sport pick up on that idea and begin to think, "We're USC, you have no chance." That attitude has clearly become an issue in the past couple seasons.

This is one of the areas that Carroll and his staff were so successful with in the 2003-05 seasons. Even when USC struggled in one game, it seemed to immediately bounce back in the next outing. Part of that might be attributed to the fact that those teams were filled with many players who had experienced the truly rough times of 2000 and 2001. When close calls happened to those players, it didn't take much for the coaches' message to sink in the following week.

However, the players on the 2006 and 2007 squads have never experienced extended problems during a season on campus. Is that why the Trojans played down to the competition a number of times in 2006 and have put on a pair of stunningly poor back-to-back performances this season? That's for the staff to address - and now.

The Pick
A week ago, I'd have told you this game was the second in a string of three games against those "lesser opponents" that would allow the Trojans to get healthy and prepare for a stretch run at the national title. Whether or not this game now becomes the first of two such outings is based wholly on the Trojans' health issues and how the players and coaches measure up to the challenges discussed here.

For this week, I will give Carroll, his staff and this team a well-deserved benefit of the doubt. USC 31, Arizona 14.

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for seven years. He is the editor-in-chief of a monthly trade magazine in the television advertising industry and is a graduate of the USC School of Journalism (1994). He has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at Thomas.haire@alumni.usc.edu.


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