Dr. Saturday - NCAAF

USC 24, Boston College 13. There were two burning questions for USC coming into the Emerald Bowl that didn't involve the eligibility of tailback Joe McKnight, the first concerning the Trojans' effort in a second-tier bowl game becoming of their fifth-place finish in the Pac-10. That one they seemed to answer emphatically, coming out with the usual enthusiasm and marching for 90 and 82-yard touchdown drives, respectively, on their first two offensive possessions, later weathering a Boston College rally in the second quarter. They didn't show much sign of being lackadaisical or unwilling to be there.

On the second question, though, regarding what their performance might have to say about next year's Trojans, the answer came back a little murkier -- SC was prolific in the passing game (27-of-37 for 351 yards, two touchdowns) but also sloppy (2 interceptions, with a little luck, along with dropped passes and a booted punt that the Trojans were astounding allowed to keep rather than set B.C. up in great field position), and inconsistent in all phases on defense. Freshman quarterback Matt Barkley connected on big plays, but also put every fifth throw or so at or near the waiting chest of an Eagle defender; the defense forced six punts and two turnovers but gave up both a 100-yard rusher and 100-yard receiver for only the second time this year. They showed up, did enough good to win, did enough bad to let the underdogs hang around well into the fourth quarter and did absolutely nothing to alter anyone's perception about the team or this disappointing season. Relative to the soaring expectations, the best you can say about this bunch is still that it didn't completely fall apart as the losses mounted down the stretch -- USC still hasn't lost two in a row under Pete Carroll since early 2001 -- but at no point even before the turmoil of the last six games did they inspire any of the usual visions of grandeur, either.

And it didn't shed any light on the direction of the team entering a crucial offseason that could determine whether SC's hiatus from the Pac-10 throne is a momentary cough or a symptom of lingering decay. No doubt Barkley will emerge at the other end as one of the nation's most recognizable faces and brightest up-and-coming stars. The blue chip-laden defense can't help but be "improved" after this year's inexperienced disaster. If he's back, the school will probably push McKnight for the Heisman. But it won't be able to provide any evidence that the team is actually worth the benefit of the doubt until it earns it on the field, and at no point after the Ohio State win in September did this group come very close. Tonight was the last chance to change that; instead, the buzzword for the next nine months is still, "potential."

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