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Game 4: A Sort of Homecoming

Game 4: A Sort of Homecoming
Following their latest 'shocking' upset, the Trojans look to regroup in the conference home opener against lowly Washington State.
The USC Trojans (2-1, 0-1 in the Pac-10), ranked 10th in the USA Today coaches' poll and No. 12 in the AP poll, return home Saturday, September 26, to face the Washington State Cougars (1-2, 0-1) at 7:15 p.m. (PDT) in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and before a national Fox Sports Net cable television audience. It is the 69th meeting between the Trojans and Cougars, with USC holding a dominating 56-8-4 edge. The Trojans have won the past six meetings, including an historic 69-0 victory in Pullman a season ago, and a 47-14 rout in the last Los Angeles meeting in 2007.
A week ago, USC suffered its now annual implosion against a lesser foe, losing three turnovers and going zero-of-10 on third-down conversions in a "why are we so stunned" 16-13 loss at Washington in its Pac-10 opener. Meanwhile, Washington State defeated SMU, 30-27, in overtime in Pullman.
Trojan Coach Pete Carroll is in his ninth season at USC (90-16, 58-11 Pac-10). Meanwhile, Washington State headman Paul Wulff (3-13, 1-9) is in his second season on the Palouse. The Cougar program remains a work in progress after a 2-11 campaign in 2008 that featured some of the most lopsided losses in Washington State history.
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 Huskies. Next week, I hope to be able to return to my regular column and inform you about what may be the Pac-10's game of the year - USC at California on Oct. 3.
Again?! Really?!
Well, we've all seen that before. Or, perhaps, we haven't, because it almost seemed like a greatest hits compilation of the worst parts of the Trojans' losses to Oregon State in 2006 and 2008, UCLA in 2006, Stanford in 2007 and even the Oregon defeat in 2007 (which is hard to categorize with the remainder of that group, since the Ducks were a top-10 team at the time). I don't know about you, but this latest of USC's now annual "stunning" losses actually angered me more than any of the others.
In honor of that greatest hits vibe, I'm going to reach back to past columns following some of those time-honored losses to help relate some thoughts about this latest USC meltdown.
'Offensive' Coaching and Quarterback Play
After Oregon State 2006 (published Nov. 2, 2006
"Once again, the USC attack seemed stilted, repetitive and predictable."
After Stanford 2007 (published Oct. 10, 2007)
"The Trojans' offensive coordinator appears to have been most affected by the Trojans' injury bug, the receivers' inconsistency and [John David] Booty's recent interception penchant. For most of the second half … it seemed that USC played in a conservative shell, leaning on its defense and just trying to escape with a victory."
"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."
After Oregon 2007 (published Nov. 1, 2007)
"While many followers of the Trojan program and college football experts were confounded by USC's odd and disjointed offensive scheme a week ago - the fourth-and-one end around to Joe McKnight on the opening possession or the two running plays for Stafon Johnson on the final USC drive, for example - the Trojan brain trust contends that USC's struggles in Oregon could be blamed on turnovers and reigned-in play calling with Mark Sanchez in only his third start at quarterback."
After Oregon State 2008 (published Oct. 2, 2008)
"The troubled game plan against the Beavers, along with the odd in-game adjustments (if you can call them that), have placed the Trojan offense back into the same 'Question Mark' category it resided in during training camp. A first-half attack that appeared to have a 'don't make mistakes, keep it close' flavor failed to do the job, as USC trailed by three touchdowns at the break."
It certainly didn't take Jeremy Bates too long to find the hot seat left behind by new Washington head man Sarkisian. After USC survived it's "bring them along slowly" effort at Ohio State, when McKnight and Matt Barkley led an epic late touchdown drive, the Trojans were not as fortunate in Seattle.
Once again against a lesser opponent, USC was victimized, in part, by a game plan that veered between effectively conservative (250 rushing yards, with McKnight, Johnson and Stanley Havili each breaking off a series of impressive runs) and predictably overly ambitious. The first signs of trouble came in USC's second drive, when after the Trojans smacked the Huskies in the mouth for the second drive in a row, powering their way down the field with straight-up zone rushing plays, Bates called for an empty-set bubble screen to McKnight that was so obvious in its design and execution that the Trojans might as well have just had reserve quarterback Aaron Corp drop back five yards and take a knee. Two plays later, USC kicked a field goal and instead of a dominating 14-0 start, Washington trailed 10-0 and its defense got a boost.
While TV analysts and others claimed that Washington was putting eight in the box to challenge USC's rushing attack and force Corp, in his first college start, to beat them, upon further review, the Huskies rarely went beyond utilizing their front seven against USC's rushing attack - and never really slowed it consistently. Many fans and others wanted to see USC "open up" the attack against Washington's heretofore overmatched pass defense - and while the Trojans did not take advantage of what had been the softest spot in the Huskies defense (the intermediate middle, challenging Washington's linebackers and safeties to make plays in pass coverage), I'm not overly certain that USC's offensive brain trust didn't over-think last week. The passing attack used - and the overuse of Havili lined up at tailback - was perhaps too precious and cute, when slamming the ball down Washington's throat and then utilizing play action to exploit the middle of a softened Husky defense might have been more effective.
Of course, after watching Corp's performance, a question popped up about just how prepared the sophomore quarterback was - and how effective he really could be as a starter at USC. This brings us to the next set of painful flashbacks.
After Stanford 2007 (published Oct. 10, 2007)
"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 …the questions swirling around the Booty/Sanchez debate can only lead me to question Sanchez's development during three years in the program."
Word on the street is that Corp is still not 100 percent after suffering a broken leg early in camp. With Barkley unable to go because of a bruised shoulder, Corp was thrust into the fray at Washington. Whether or not Corp was "officially" informed he was going to start in Seattle, the sophomore had to know that it was his turn to go based on practice reps a week ago.
However, in a performance as lacking as any seen under center at USC in more than a decade, it became clear Corp has not developed past being a single-read quarterback, even though this is his third fall on campus. Camera shots of Bates and Corp sitting on the bench as Bates removed plays from his call sheet, the numerous near interceptions and a pair of poor throws on plays that could have busted open (most memorably, the same seam route to tight end Anthony McCoy that played such a huge role in Barkley's game winning drive in Columbus) show that Corp, injured or not, is not ready for prime time at USC. Anyone who questions Carroll's camp choice of Barkley over Corp at this point is merely kidding himself.
Development also must be questioned when Mitch Mustain, in his fourth year in college and third year at USC, is not even an option with an injured first-string QB and an under-performing second-stringer helping put a game in jeopardy. People say Mustain just hasn't "gotten" USC's offense after growing up in a shotgun, five-wide environment. Based on the simplistic efforts we've seen out of USC's offense so far in 2009, that's hard to believe.
Turnovers, Penalties and Third Down
After Oregon State 2006 (published Nov. 2, 2006)
"When you add an interception in the end zone and three fumbles deep in your own territory to that mix, you end up where USC was - down by 23 points."
"The fumbles didn't help a rushing attack that appeared to be on its way to having a strong day. Chauncey Washington averaged about five yards per carry against OSU, but his two fumbles killed USC."
Of course, even with the interesting scheme and Corp's struggles, the Trojans found themselves on the plus side of the 50-yard line four times during the game in Seattle only to come away with zero points. Two fumbles (by Johnson and Havili) and a bad interception thrown by Corp were responsible for three of those drives ending without points. The fourth ended at the half, when a mysterious running play featuring Havili at tailback fell short of a first down, and the field goal team could not get into position in time to convert before the gun.
Add to these mistakes a slew of kicking game penalties that hurt USC's field position and a Hackett-Era-like zero-for-10 conversion rate on third downs, and you realize the Trojans shot themselves in the foot time and again in this game. And, even with all of that, the Huskies didn't lead until the fourth quarter - and didn't close the deal until there were three seconds remaining. To call AP voters overzealous in putting Washington at No. 24 this week would be a vast understatement. While Jake Locker played an admirable game and is a fantastic player, this Washington team is far from a good football team - and I am afraid, USC fans, that we will find this out time and again as the season goes along.
Third and 15
After Stanford 2007 (published Oct. 10, 2007)
"Which leads to the final ignominy - the failure of the vaunted USC defense to close out the game …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."
After Oregon State 2008 (published Oct. 2, 2008)
"If you thought the offensive plan against Oregon State was frustrating, then I trust you also had some issues with the defensive effort, as well. For years, we have heard that the reason Pac-10 teams give USC the most trouble is that they play the Trojans every year and therefore are more able to scheme against them. I concur - but, at the same time, shouldn't the reverse also be true?"
Meantime, the USC defense, which was without its leader in Taylor Mays, played a generally solid game for more than three-and-a-half quarters, truly keeping USC in a game that the offense seemed determined to give away. The Trojan defensive line was particularly outstanding. But, once again - as in past upsets - the defense gave up a key play at the wrong time.
Washington's third-and-15 conversion with about three minutes remaining is as frustrating a defensive play as I've seen in some time. While USC had been getting solid pressure all day on Locker, and had utilized some blitzing to free defensive linemen at key points during the game, the Trojans brought just four on this decisive play. Locker had a lifetime to find a receiver and made a great throw, splitting the Trojans' zone coverage.
Much has been made of Sarkisian and Washington defensive coordinator Nick Holt taking advantage of their knowledge of USC's scheme and personnel. When UW called timeout before this play, couldn't the same have been true on USC's sideline when it came to understanding Sarkisian's tendencies in this situation? We'll never know - Carroll believes the Trojans were in the right defense and Locker made a special play. After repeated views, it's clear that Locker made a great throw into decent coverage. But one still wonders how Locker's throw would have looked with an extra rusher in his face.
Spin the 'Bounce'
After Stanford 2007 (published Oct. 10, 2007)
"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."
"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?"
So, here it is again - USC facing an early-season crossroads. You have to admire Carroll for protecting his players and taking the entirety of the blame for yet another road meltdown against what should have been an overmatched opponent. And you have to believe that his message about how the response - not the loss - is the important thing here will again hit home with his players.
However, after watching USC compile a 4-5 record in Pac-10 road openers during the Carroll Era (that's nearly half of Carroll's Pac-10 losses during his run), and seeing USC lose at least one inexplicable game per season each of the past four years, it's difficult not to wonder how - and when - this issue will get fixed. When pundits begin calling their shots on when the Trojans will suffer their annual meltdown, it's clear that this issue is becoming THE stain on Carroll's amazing record in University Park.
While Carroll has and deserves the full and complete support of USC's fan base, the questions remain: Why does USC need to learn this lesson time and again? Shouldn't the lesson have become something about not allowing this to happen in the first place by now? Is it preparation, coaching decisions or player execution?
Carroll has announced that Barkley will return to the starting lineup on Saturday. Bates has spoken about opening up the offense beginning this weekend. These are both positive developments. Washington State has improved only slightly from the team the Trojans walloped 69-0 a season ago and should not (again, SHOULD not) threaten to beat USC on Saturday.
But, that's not what matters. What matters is USC getting back to being the USC that comes out looking to throttle teams on both sides of the ball from the opening kickoff. The Trojan effort we saw last week - featuring a disjointed and, well, meek offensive strategy for much of the final three quarters - was one that was trying to steal a game in the fourth quarter on the road from a team that went 0-12 a season ago. That simply is not good enough, even across town - and definitely not at USC.
With the standard that Carroll has set - and it's a standard that is best described by a popular student chant that is memorialized in the headline of an Esquire feature story in the magazine's October issue (Big Balls Pete) - that effort is simply unacceptable. And I am certain that Carroll, his staff and the players all know and feel that more than anyone else.
So, what's important to see from the Trojans on Saturday? Attitude, swagger, execution. With a trip to Cal the following weekend - for a game that truly may decide the Pac-10 champion - the Trojans need to get back to USC football. Washington State's pass defense has been abysmal, and the Trojans need to show the college football world that they can use the whole field in their passing attack. It's clear that USC can run the football effectively, even when defenses have been able to focus on it thanks to a muddled Trojan passing attack. However, with the upcoming schedule, the Trojans cannot afford to remain one-dimensional any longer.
USC 49, Washington State 7
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for nine years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at thomas.haire@alumni.usc.edu.