November 01, 2009
Since it ascended to the top of the Pac-10 and the national polls in 2003, USC losing is always a big deal: Every one of USC's seven losses since the blockbuster letdown against Texas in the 2006 Rose Bowl has been accompanied by the same round of shock and buzz about the Trojans' pending decline, in large part because so many have been out-of-the-blue upsets. Even without another national championship since 2004, though, SC's fall has always remained speculative -- since 2002, the Trojans have won or shared the Pac-10 championship every year, proceeded to a BCS bowl every year (winning seven out of eight) and finished in the top five of the final polls every year. Even with the occasional stumble against an obviously inferior team, USC has remained the definition of a dynasty for nearly the entire decade.
Barring a procession of events too improbable to contemplate, Saturday night's humiliating collapse at Oregon was the end of that run, at least for a year. For the first time since '02, the Trojans will not be Pac-10 champs: At 5-0 in conference play, the Ducks are two games in front of both USC and Cal, and hold tiebreaker advantages after blowing out both. With a crowded field at the top of the BCS pool, the odds are now against SC sneaking into a BCS bowl even if it runs the table over the next month, and it may be lucky to crack the top 10 again, much less the top five.
The judgment of standings and polls is sobering enough. But the really damning reality of waking up on the wrong end of a 47-20 rout isn't in the external judgments or postseason projections; it's in the fact that Trojans were whipped -- not just defeated on the scoreboard, but truly dominated and beaten in every aspect of the game. The consequences of falling behind in the standings barely compute compared to all the ways USC came up woefully short of any of its Carroll-era predecessors on the field:
• Points allowed. Forty-seven points is the most SC has given up under Carroll, and only the third time it had allowed 40-plus in one game (Fresno State scored 42 and Texas put up 41 in a three-game span in 2005). Before last week's collapse against Oregon State, the Trojans were still on a 30-game streak without allowing 30 points; they'd only allowed 43 points in their first five games this year -- including wins over Ohio State and Cal -- combined.
• Margin of victory. The 27-point beating was by far the worst the Trojans have endured under Carroll, more than twice as bad as the previous worst, an 11-point loss to Notre Dame in 2001, the last loss in a 2-5 start in Carroll's first season. But that doesn't quite cover the magnitude of a four-touchdown pounding: That loss in South Bend is the only defeat in the Carroll era by more than a touchdown, and none of the Trojans' 11 losses between that game and Saturday night were decided before the final two minutes.
So this is the real "king is dead" statistic of the night: The Ducks' 27-point margin was one more than the margins of all seven of USC's losses since 2004 combined.
• Rushing yards. The Ducks' 391 rushing yards was more than 100 yards better than the previous high against a Carroll D, making the 289-yard rushing bomb Vince Young and Co. dropped on the Trojans in the '06 Rose Bowl look like a mere mortar to Oregon's tactical nuke. Jeremiah Masoli's 48-yard gallop in the second quarter is the longest run the Trojans have allowed in two years, and the Ducks broke more runs of 20 yards or longer (7) than SC had allowed in its first six games combined (4). No Carroll defense since at least 2005 had allowed more than eight 20-yard runs in an entire season.
• Total yards. The Ducks' 613 total yards was the first 600-yard effort against the Trojans under Carroll, and only the second 500-yard effort, again putting Texas' 556-yard explosion in the '06 Rose Bowl to shame. Excluding the Longhorns, it was the first time USC had given up more than 400 yards in a loss since falling in overtime at Cal in 2003.
• Turnover margin. It was the first game the Trojans have lost without finishing in the red in turnover margin since 2006, when they were even with one turnover apiece in a 13-9 loss to UCLA. In its other five losses over the last five years, USC has always aided the cause by shooting itself in the foot, finishing –4 against Oregon State (2006); –4 against Stanford (2007); –1 against Oregon (2007); –2 against Oregon State (2008); and –3 against Washington earlier this year. As a general rule, USC doesn't lose when it doesn't turn the ball over, but the Trojans didn't give the ball away once in Eugene until a meaningless interception on the final snap of the game.
The fact is that Oregon made USC look like Washington State, which did about as good a job of corralling the Duck offense last month. This was the Duck team we saw at the end of last year, when they scored at least 35 points, went over 450 total yards and averaged more than seven yards per play in every game of a four-game winning streak to close the season, and that we roughly expected at the start of this year, instead of the inept nightmare we got in Boise on opening night. These are the Ducks that were steaming toward the Pac-10 championship and a likely national title shot after beating the Trojans in 2007 before an ACL injury to prolific quarterback Dennis Dixon submarined the season and left the crown for USC to assume again. Three years in a row now, we've seen Chip Kelly's spread option offense at its nightmarish pinnacle for short stretches, and it firmly established itself as the dominant entity the conference Saturday night.
But clearly these are not the same Trojans, and it seems impossible to imagine going on pretending that they are. USC has enough talent to rebound and finish this season in dominating reminiscent of its recent, dominating past, and to come back strong enough to reassume its West Coast crown again next year. But the assumption is gone, the aura totally obliterated by a stumpy JUCO transfer with a somewhat suspect arm. If USC is going to be considered the unquestioned Pac-10 overlord again, its going to have to earn it back by consistently performing like the old USC again, and that standard is no longer within reach in 2009.