Saturday, September 19, 2009
USC 13, UW 16: Who let the dogs out?
A week ago the USC Trojans were flying high on the wings of a true freshman quarterback after knocking off the Ohio State Buckeyes in front of 105,000 angry i-dotting maniacs. Fast forward from Columbus to Seattle, and a week later the Trojans crashed and burned against a team that went 0-12 a year ago. The Washington Huskies 16-13 upset of the No. 3 USC Trojans is yet another example of a current Trojan team riding the same cocky wave that none of the most recent SC squads were truly worthy of.
Think about the 2003 USC Trojans, which were coming off a Pac-10 title behind Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Carson Palmer and defensive standout Troy Polamalu. The season began with high expectations, but no one knew just how high. Training camp saw a QB battle between a handful of untesteds: Matt Leinart, John David Booty and Matt Cassel. The first game was a 23-0 win at Auburn. SC got out to a 3-0 start to the season before one bad half of football cost them the game at Cal, the lone loss of a split National Title season.
The next two years saw the Trojans go on one of college football's most impressive runs in recent history, dominating all opponents in their path in 2004 en route to a 55-19 Orange Bowl win over the heavily-favored Oklahoma Sooners for the BCS Championship. Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart announced he would return to SC for his fifth year, and it was a forgone conclusion that USC would win a third straight National Title in 2005. That year, Trojans Bush-pushed their way past Notre Dame in a game that frankly lead to the aura of invincibility that surrounds this USC program.
Frankly, there was no way they should have beaten Notre Dame, but Dwayne Jarrett's big catch-and-run on 4th and 9 put the Trojans in position to win it on the final play of the game. Two and a half months later, the Trojans were seconds away from defeating Texas in the Rose Bowl before Vince Young stole the show and the BCS Championship running to his right, cutting the corner of the end zone and snapping the Trojans' 34-game winning streak. When the year ended, Leinart, Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush, LenDale White and many others left for the NFL, but that aura remained - for better or worse.
USC carries itself with that aura of invincibility into each game. They have for years. Maybe that's how they've been able to squeak out several close-calls in recent years while only suffering a handful of loses. Or the loses to Oregon State and UCLA in 2006, Stanford and Oregon in 2007, and Oregon State in 2008 displayed that the Trojans walk around with falsely-deserved confidence that is simply lingering around from those National Title seasons of 2003 and 2004.
But now, counting Matt Barkley and Aaron Corp, the Trojans are four quarterbacks removed from Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer. They are three offensive coordinators removed from the days of Norm Chow. Yes, it is still Pete Carroll's team, but the true elements that helped him build a dynasty - and make no mistake, seven straight Pac-10 titles is a dynasty - are no longer in the Cardinal and Gold, and it's consistently catching up to the Trojans.
Remember the 2004 Trojans, the "Leave No Doubt" Trojans? They did just that. They left NO doubt. It was undeniable the talent on that squad and what they were going to do week in and week out. Fast forward to the recent Trojans teams, and we see doubt all across the USC program. Starting QB Matt Barkley is hurt, and Aaron Corp just set back the Trojans passing game 15 years. The highly touted "stable" of running backs just put the ball on the turf four times on Saturday. Defensive jedi Taylor Mays missed a game with an injury for the first time in his career, and the defense on the field allowed the Huskies to march down the field for the winning field goal. The Trojans lost the turnover battle, 3-0, and went 0-for-10 on 3rd downs while the Huskies were nearly 50% on 3rd down conversions.
Lots and lots of doubt.
Now USC may bounce right back and go on to win the rest of its games just like last year's squad. The 2008 Trojans and quarterback Mark Sanchez finished the year with a very respectable Rose Bowl win over Penn State and a record seventh Pacific-10 Conference title. Great. The Trojans missed out on a National Title shot, and frankly that's part of the beauty of college football's lack of a playoff. Can you balance on the high wire for the entire fall, or will you do just that, fall? The Trojans have slipped up enough in recent years to miss out on return trips to the BCS Championship game.
Perhaps a loss to Washington will be damaging enough to cost the Trojans a title shot even if they salvage the rest of their season and win out. Easier said than done. Perhaps the Trojans can bounce back and put together a strong enough season to contend for the Pac-10 title and a BCS berth. Or perhaps this is just another example of an aura of greatness still lingering around a program that has long since lost much of the magic.