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Why USC flourishes in early-season showdowns under Pete Carroll

I guess it makes sense that USC is favored by 11 over Ohio State. The Trojans will be at home, the Coliseum off the hook. Mascot-wise, Traveler has the edge on Brutus Buckeye.

And while the Trojans overwhelmed Virginia in their sole outing this season, the Buckeyes were underwhelming against a second-level MAC squad being led by its second-string quarterback last week. Trojans quarterback Mark Sanchez looked dangerous, mobile and very much at ease against the Wahoos. And there seems to be some question now -- raised by a certain sweater-vested sphinx, so take it for what it's worth -- whether Beanie Wells will even get on the field.

The makers of these odds have clearly taken the "Stun Factor" into consideration. That's my coinage for the strange spell that settles on USC's early-season, non-conference opponents. It explains why quality teams with terrific athletes come into these September epics looking to make a statement, but end up looking like dynamited fish, belly-up and wondering what concussive force just rocked their world in yet another Trojans rout.

A brief history of the Stun Factor: In 2003, the Trojans dispensed with Auburn, BYU and Hawaii by the combined score of 109-50. A year later, Virginia Tech, Colorado State and BYU were outscored by the men of Troy, 115-23.

And then things got really ugly for 'SC's early-season cultural-exchange partners. Recall the Leinart, Bush and White-led vivisections of Hawaii (63-17) and Arkansas (70-17) in '05. So morale-killing was the latter beatdown that it was likened by Reggie Herring, then the Razorbacks' defensive coordinator, to "having your dog run over, your wife left you and your house burned down." So when the Trojans hung only half a hundred on Herring & Co. the following season, Arkansas' sports infomation office celebrated the "vast improvement" of the defense, which had yielded a stingy 472 total yards (down from 736!). If only Arkansas had played the Trojans a couple more times, the Hogs would've held them to negative yardage!

How does the Stun Factor Work? It's not that complicated. USC dominates games against top-tier non-conference foes because it has the cojones to schedule them in the first place. "To conquer without risk," wrote the French tragedian Pierre Corneille, "is to triumph without glory." It is, in other words to play out the '08 nonconference schedule of Auburn (Louisiana-Monroe, Southern Miss and Tennessee-Martin), or LSU (App. State, North Texas, Tulane and Troy), or Texas Tech (Eastern Washington, Nevada, SMU and UMass).

Yes, Carroll and his assistants are top-notch recruiters. But, as teams like Tennessee demonstrate year after year, there's a difference between being loaded and being really good. When everything is firing for Carroll's Trojans -- when they're scoring four TDs in eighth plays over the course of 92 seconds against Arkansas; or putting the wood to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl or spanking Michigan or Illinois in the Rose Bowl -- they are better than the sum of their impressive parts. Which is no accident.

Dating back to his days as a grad student at University of the Pacific (when he would drive from Stockton to L.A. to visit his future wife while reading Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche's Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism flat on the dashboard), Carroll has steeped himself in something called the Human Potential Movement.

He discussed neither Trungpa nor the Movement, we can safely assume, on the 1979 afternoon when, during his one season as an assistant at Ohio State, he spied Woody Hayes from his cubicle in St. John's Arena. Hustling after the legend, Carroll introduced himself. They walked and talked for 10 minutes. "I was all thrilled," Carroll recalled this week. "He even knew that I was one of the new coaches. We talked football. That was my one chance I had to visit with him."

Hayes had no way of knowing that the manic, boyish assistant bopping alongside him was a rebel, an insurgent. As a head coach, Carroll has blazed a trail that diverged radically from the shaming, screaming, saliva-spritzing, face-mask-grabbing model favored not just by Woodrow, but by generations of football coaches.

Carroll doesn't coach through fear. Which is not to say none of his assistants never have. Once his players have put in their preparation, Carroll's goal is to get them to a place where mind and body are in harmony, "to operate in the absence of fear," as he puts it.

Which brings us to Ray Small, the Buckeyes wideout and punt returner who ended up on SoCal message boards this week. Small recalled his recruiting visit to 'SC for ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg. "How are they successful?" he recalls thinking. "They're not even serious about the game. Before the game, they're all going crazy. Me and Rob Rose was on the visit and I'm looking like, 'Wow.' And then the coach said, 'You better get out of here. It's about to get hectic.' "

He compared that to the calm, quiet pregame scene in Columbus -- "the total opposite."

"Here at Ohio State," he went on to say, "they teach you to be a better man. There, it's just all about football."

I am not here to dogpile on Small. As a journalist alternately frustrated and rendered drowsy by the blandness of countless interviewees, I applaud his candor, even if it means he is about to reap a cardinal and gold whirlwind.

What's interesting is that the craziness he referred to appears to be that which erupts during one of the Trojans' game-day rituals. A few hours before kickoff, the team gathers in a meeting room where the players take over, and a healthy kind of anarchy breaks out. "Sometimes it's emotional, sometimes it's fun," says Carroll. "We just go with the energy, you know?" And if a coach is called upon to dance in the middle of the room, he doesn't really have a choice but to dance.

What Small didn't discern, and I don't blame him, was the method to this madness. In the end, says Carroll, the ritual is about trust. "The preparation [for the upcoming opponent] is done. We want them to trust that everything's OK, that we got everything right. There's no need to be all uptight or afraid of making mistakes, cause that part's done. Now it's time to go out, relax, have a little fun, play a little Trojanball."

This explains, for me, why the Trojans under Carroll have been so adept at taking the pressure that attends huge games, national games, and making it their ally. The bigger the stage, the better they play.

Their problem is the converse: The smaller the stage, the greater the likelihood that the Trojans get caught sleepwalking, as happened against Oregon State in '06 and Stanford last season.

Intensity won't be a problem for USC on Saturday night. And that -- not Beanie's bad wheel -- might be the visitors' biggest problem.

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