November 15, 2009
At some point during Stanford's 55-21 rout over USC Saturday -- possibly around the time Stanford players were mocking the Trojans' "Fight On" motto for television cameras, or when the Cardinal were lining up to shamelessly run up the score with a two-point conversion following a touchdown that made the score 48-21 in the fourth quarter -- the Big Question shifted from "Is something really wrong with USC?" to "What is wrong with USC?" Off the eye-opening pounding the Trojans endured at Oregon on Halloween, they've suddenly been dealt the two of the most lopsided losses in decades in a three-week span, and with them have lost any realistic hope of capturing their eight straight Pac-10 championship. That quickly SC, has fallen from its usual perch as a Rose Bowl frontrunner and lurking national title contender and found itself on the fast track to the Sun or Las Vegas bowls.
And it could be worse, actually: If SC hadn't survived close call against Ohio State, Notre Dame, Oregon State and Arizona State, it would be staring at the first losing record of Pete Carroll's tenure as head coach. To the extent they're still a respectable, poll-worthy outfit at 7-3 on the season, it's much closer to the lower end of that scale than it's been since Carroll's first season in L.A., in 2001 -- which was at least more competitive in its losses than this team has been, despite that team finishing just 6-6.
To answer that question, "What's wrong with USC?", there are plenty of potential answers, all of them readily apparent before the season. The Trojans are a) Starting a true freshman quarterback, Matt Barkley, whose struggles have only intensified as the year drags on; b) Revamping the defense with eight new starters, all in place of NFL draft picks that made up one of the most dominating units in recent memory last year; c) Working with new, first-time coordinators on both sides of the ball; and d) Dealing with key injuries all over the field, most notably in the offensive backfield and receiving corps. All of the potential pitfalls of the preseason have come to pass in one of the most spectacular one-month implosions of the last decade.
Clearly, the one excuse that will never fly at the deepest, most consistently blue-chip-stocked recruiting machine in America is "lack of talent," Maybe Florida, Texas, Alabama or another of the miniscule handful of national recruiting powerhouses can reasonably hope to match up with USC athletically, but certainly no other member of the Pac-10 can, and certainly not Stanford, which has regularly languished in the bottom half of the league in recruiting rankings for years. USC obviously is not losing by five touchdowns at home, to anyone, because it doesn't have the players.
No wonder, then, that USC partisans responded with such vitriol to the official school blog's assertion that the team expressed a "never-say-die attitude and unwillingness to relent" even as the Cardinal were on a 27-0 run in the fourth quarter. The implications of the Trojans being run out of their own stadium by a team that hasn't been to a bowl game since 2001 despite a full effort on the field were too much for the L.A. Times' T.J. Simers, too, who couldn't quite believe Carroll's suggestion after the game that one of the most humiliating blowouts in school history had anything whatsoever to do with talent:
"We played hard," [Carroll] says, the Trojans apparently giving everything they had but obviously not belonging in the same class as a group of future engineers and astronauts from Stanford. "We were trying hard."
Doesn't USC have the better athletes? I ask.
"That's obviously not the case," Carroll says.
Are you saying Stanford has better athletes than USC? I ask.
"It sure looked like it today," Carroll says, as shocking an admission as I can recall from Carroll.
"It's been coming and I think it's been kind of clear as you watch film of our conference," Carroll says. "There ain't no doubt [the gap has closed in the Pacific 10 Conference]."
Frankly, the implication that "this is a tough league" might explain 34-point pounding, from a coach whose mantra is "Always Compete," amounts to denial on the order of Bobby Bowden forgetting the score of his own team's game last week. And Carroll is not an octogenarian on his farewell tour. Either his young but exceptionally capable team was poorly prepared or it kissed its edge goodbye when the ball started rolling downhill late, just as it did at Oregon two weeks ago, and neither reflects well on Carroll, his staff or this team.
From that perspective, the really interesting aspect of the "end of the dynasty" for the rest of the season (besides the convoluted drama at the top of the Pac-10 standings in the wake of USC's absence) is tracking just how well USC responds to the threat of full-blown mediocrity. The Trojans haven't lost two games in a row since '01 -- before Saturday, they hadn't lost more than two games in an entire season since '01 -- and are still young and obviously talented enough to close out this season on a strong run that leaves them with 10 wins and sets them up as the Pac-10 frontrunner again next year. By that point, maybe the growing pains will have hardened this year's pups into the usual SC pit bulls.
Until then, we won't know how deep the obvious cracks that have emerged this season really run, or whether they can just be painted over like they were never there by another seven-year run of uninterrupted dominance. But even if their immediate fate is obviously shot where the usual spoils of conference titles and BCS bowls are concerned, we can still learn a lot about the future of this great program by how it carries itself with nothing at stake but the logo on the side of the helmet. The response against UCLA, Arizona and whoever the Trojans get in their second-tier bowl game will set the tone for 2010, which may be the year that determines whether SC will move back in front of the pack or fall back for good.