You are USC, and this is how you let another national championship slip through your fingers. You're coming off a huge, emotional victory on the road in prime time. Up next: a road trip to a hostile stadium in the Pacific Northwest, against a team that went 0-12 in 2008. You have more talent on your scout team than the Washington Huskies have on their starting units.
But the Huskies are led by Jake Locker, the most talented quarterback in the Pac-10. And they are coached by Steve Sarkisian, who's been on your staff, on and off, since 2001. His defensive coordinator, Nick Holt, was your defensive coordinator last year. These guys know your personnel as well as you know your personnel.
Matt Barkley, your starting quarterback, the once-in-a-decade true freshman who sparked the drive for the ages that beat Ohio State, can't go. He's got a bone bruise in his throwing shoulder. Backup Aaron Corp will make the first start of his career in the loudest stadium in the country.
Corp works with the first team offense all week, yet you refuse to name him your starter until just before the game. Coach Pete Carroll's attempt at gamesmanship (if that's what it was -- an effort to make Holt prepare for both quarterbacks) falls flat. If anything, it sends the message to Corp: Not real sure about you, kid.
You have found your feature back, after three years of searching. But Joe McKnight, the real hero of the Buckeyes win, comes into the game with flu-like symptoms, and rolls his left ankle early on.
Taylor Mays, your best defensive player, is nursing a bum knee, and doesn't suit up.
Your second-best tailback, Stafon Johnson, converts a key fourth down early in the second quarter, then coughs the ball up ... just as Chauncy Washington fumbled repeatedly in the Trojans monstrous upset loss at Oregon State in '06; just as McKnight put the ball on the ground in last season's no-less stunning loss to the Beavers a year ago.
Your defense holds, but you are flagged for an illegal block in the back on the ensuing punt return, burying your first-time starter in a deep hole. Corp looks lost, and you punt. You watch Locker convert a 3rd-and-17 on UW's next series, wasting a terrific sack by freshman defensive end Nick Perry. The Huskies tie the game with a field goal.
You are flagged for holding on the ensuing kickoff return, putting Corp in a deep hole. Again. Huskies force a three-and-out. Again.
You get the ball back with a minute and change left in the half, and Corp finally looks alive. But on third-and-one, you call a curious play -- a slow developing handoff to fullback Stanley Havili - and are thrown for a three-yard loss. Time runs out while your field goal team tries to get set up.
After bolting to a 10-0 lead, you are tied at halftime with the team that finished last season ranked 110th in scoring defense.
You come out of the locker room and finally look like USC, driving the ball down the field like Trojan juggernauts of old. Deep in the red zone on the tenth play of the drive, Havili uses second and third efforts to keep a play alive, only to be stripped of the ball.
Your surprisingly stout defense, featuring exactly one starter from last season, holds again, but Corp gives the ball back with a brutal interception.
Having let the Huskies hang around all afternoon, you look on as Erik Folk's 46-yard field goal gives the home team its first lead. You struggle to stave off a familiar nausea. With 10 minutes to play, the stadium is off the hook. The team is hopping in unison around Sarkisian on the sideline. It is clear they are not intimidated by the nation's third-ranked team. They know they can win this game.
Corp looks confused and disoriented enroute to another three-and-out. Carroll can't be blamed for thinking: Now do you see why I hesitated naming him the starter?
You are heartened as equilibrium appears to restore itself in the college football cosmos. A big punt return by Damian Williams, is followed by a sparkling, 34-yard rush by McKnight. With the Trojans poised to take the lead, you watch the 'SC offense fail to convert another third down. On the afternoon, Corp will go 0-for-10 on third downs. 'SC must settle for a game-tying field goal.
You cheer as Perry, the sensational freshman, casts Locker into a deep hole with a 12-yard sack. You groan as Locker escapes from it. On third-and-15, the junior quarterback finds sophomore wideout Jermaine Kearse in a seam over the middle for a 21-yard pickup. Running to his right five plays later, Locker holds the ball forever, finally uncorking another perfect throw to Kearse, deep in the red zone. Folk gets to be a Folk hero, winning the game with a chip shot field goal with :03.
You watch the students from another overmatched Pac-10 opponent storm the field. You are forced to mouth the now-familiar refrains: "We can still win the Pac-10," and "One loss doesn't necessarily doom our national championship hopes." Even as you hear yourself saying that, you reflect on the fact that, last year, that's precisely what happened.
You are stunned to realize that, excluding a gimme TD set up by Chris Galippo's interception return against Ohio State, your team has now put together two touchdown drives in two games, despite fielding one of the country's top offensive lines, and an embarrassment of riches at running back.
You've got two weeks to find some offense before you head north to Berkeley, where you will face the Cal Bears, who've scored 146 points in their first three games.
You look on the bright side: against Cal, it looks like you'll be the underdog.