Sunday, November 15, 2009

The fall of Troy: Stanford 55, USC 21

For the first time since 2001, the Pac-10 conference will have a champion that doesn't wear Cardinal and Gold. The Trojans first ever November loss in the Pete Carroll era dropped USC to 4-3 in the conference (7-3 overall) and fifth in the conference standings, putting them out of reach for a BCS bowl and even a share of the league championship.

Stanford jumped out to an early lead and finished even stronger en route to the worst loss in the Pete Carroll era for the second time in three weeks, a 55-21 dismantling of the Pac-10 kings for the last seven years.

If it wasn't clear two weeks ago when the Ducks clobbered USC in a game where the defense was overwhelmed and the offense couldn't keep up, the Men of Troy suffered a repeat performance against the Cardinal.

Running back Toby Gerhart ran for 178 yards and three touchdowns on 29 carries to pace the Cardinal, and their defense forced four turnovers of freshman quarterback Matt Barkley, two of which came early in the first quarter as Stanford jumped to an early 14-0 lead.

The disappointing part of the entire loss might not be the fact that Jim Harbaugh went for a late two-point conversion -- it's his right to do so, and if the Trojans don't like it, stop 'em. The disappointing part of the loss isn't necessarily the reality that the Trojans era of dominance is over -- it had to eventually come to an end or at least a one-year hiatus. The most disappointing aspect of this loss was the purely impotent feeling the Trojans seemed to feel as Stanford ran away with 27 fourth quarter points to do what the Trojans were preaching back in 2004: leave no doubt.

Stanford did just that. They left little doubt that they should be playing in a bowl for the first time since 2001, and they left even less doubt about the fate of Trojans football.

There will be no Rose Bowl. There won't even be a Holiday Bowl after USC got bowled over in the fourth quarter. The Trojans run of BCS berths and Pac-10 titles will always be considered one of the greatest and strongest stretches of dominance in college football, but mark the year 2009 as the season that so many streaks were finally stopped.

Thoughts on the game:
+ For the third straight game, Matt Barkley seemed to be doing his best Aaron Corp impression. Barkley was 21-for-31 with 196 yards, 1 touchdown, 3 interceptions, and 1 fumble lost. As if his numbers weren't bad enough, Barkley spent most of the game telegraphing his passes, staring down receivers and tipping off his targets. Earlier this season, the true freshman would read the entire field, going through his progressions from receiver to receiver until finding an acceptable target. On two of his three interceptions, Barkley was in a comfortable pocket with his eyes locked on an intended target, and the defense pounced on him.

Barkley doesn't need to be pulled as the alternative wasn't any better, but he does need to get back to work at going through his reads to find the right target and not decide pre-snap where he's throwing. Throwing off his back foot didn't help much either.

+ The Trojans defense looked porous at best as Stanford frequently marched up an down the field at the Coliseum. The offense didn't help by giving the ball to the Cardinal twice early, but the defense was pushed back play after play like they were on rollers. Stanford was 8-for-11 on 3rd down conversions. The Cardinal went 3-and-out on their first possession with three incomplete passes before taking advantage of two turnovers for a pair of touchdowns.

+ Stanford was automatic for at least 4-5 yards on every running play behind Gerhart. The Cardinal scored five rushing touchdowns while running for 325 yards on the ground against a defense that used to be a human wall. The Cardinal ran 50 times compared to just 22 pass plays. The basics of winning football games always seems to boil down to running the ball and stopping the run. USC's 138 rushing yards didn't seem so bad, but it simply pales in comparison to the three hundred freaking twenty-five yards Stanford churned out on the ground.

+ In addition to the five rushing touchdowns, Andrew Luck passed for two more, and defensive back Richard Sherman reached the end zone on a pick six. It was offense at will for Stanford with USC powerless to stop them.

The Trojans can still salvage this season, win their final two games - both at home - against UCLA and Arizona, and win a bowl game for another 10-win season. Finished 10-3 with a decent bowl win doesn't mean this program is reduced to rubble. It will be a humbling end to the season for USC regardless as the Trojans haven't finished outside of the BCS Bowl schedule since Carson Palmer was a ho-hum quarterback in 2001.

USC must maintain regain focus as rival UCLA will be able to get up for this game. The Trojans won't have to go to the Rose Bowl for this game, but the Bruins will no doubt travel well across town to support their team in the hopes of hanging another loss on the Trojans. Pete Carroll hasn't been in a situation like this since his first year as head coach back in 2001. If Carroll is truly the guru that Trojans fans know and believe him to be, he will have his team ready to go against UCLA to make a statement - if not to the rest of the nation or even conference, then at least to themselves - that the last two losses do not represent this Trojans team.

Wins in the final two games and getting a bowl win won't erase the pain of the losses against Stanford and at Oregon, not to mention the abortion in Washington, but that can provide the Trojans momentum heading into 2010, which might be the real thing USC is playing for the rest of the way.

Oregon State4-2.6676-3.667
Arizona State2-4.3334-5.444
Washington State0-5.0001-8.111

UPDATE (11/15/09, 11:43am):
Trojans drop to No. 22 in AP poll

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