In down year for USC, Carroll, Trojans looking to regain swagger

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Get ready for an incongruous sight this weekend: Pete Carroll leading his USC Trojans into the Emerald Bowl.

The grandbaby of them all.

"I can't tell you the history of the game," Carroll said during a pre-Emerald Bowl press junket in San Francisco with Boston College coach Frank Spaziani. "It's a new bowl. One that's been gaining prominence."

It's definitely not the Rose Bowl -- the game USC considers its birthright. Not a BCS Bowl. Not a bowl in the month of January. The Dec. 26 Emerald Bowl is not exactly the kind of postseason prize Carroll's Trojans seek.

"It was a challenging season for us," Carroll said. "One that we're not accustomed to. We had to take our knocks. It's a season that will have an effect on us."

After spending most of the first decade of the 21st century as the dominant program in college football, Carroll is seeing the 2000s out in odd fashion.

The 8-4 Trojans have dropped out of the AP Top 25 for the first time in eight years. They've had their worst season since Carroll's first in 2001, finishing in the middle of the Pac-10. They aren't headed to either the Rose Bowl or the national championship game for the first time in six seasons.

They've also slipped in another key ranking: recruiting. Usually listed among the top five recruiting classes and snaring every big-time player West of the Mississippi, USC has been downgraded by various recruiting Web sites to anywhere from No. 10 to No. 19.

And then there's ithe mage pummeling that has taken place in recent weeks. The national examination of Carroll's coaching etiquette. The bizarre Charlie Weis rumor-mongering. And yet another potential NCAA violation -- reports have surfaced in recent days stating USC tailback Joe McKnight is being investigated for inappropriately driving a SUV.

Unusually rough times in Troy. Does such a stretch give Carroll more appreciation for his run of sustained excellence?

"I don't know if it gives me more appreciation," he said. "It's been cause for a lot of frustration at not being able to pull it off. We've taken a lot of pride in being able to do that."

Year after year, Carroll has been able to reload. While players depart for the NFL, he's seamlessly slipped others into their places. But this season, he couldn't find an answer for his nine departed seniors on defense and his starting quarterback Mark Sanchez. Despite all the big losses, Carroll didn't predict such a drop off.

"We've always had big transitions, going back to Carson Palmer and Troy Polamalu," he said. "There are examples through our history where we're able to bounce back. We had enormous losses on defense this year and we were not able to bounce back to the same level on defense."

And while Carroll defends Matt Barkley, the first true freshman to ever start at quarterback for the Trojans, he concedes that the offense struggled.

"We weren't quite able to get it done," he said.

So how does Carroll motivate his team -- kids who came to USC to win a national championship -- for the Emerald Bowl? In past years, he's been asked that same question about settling for the Rose Bowl.

"We love to play games," Carroll insisted. "Our team will get pumped up for this one and we'll put everything into it."

Emerald bowl director Gary Cavalli said he needed assurances from USC that the program was fully committed to his bowl. He got them. For Carroll, the Emerald bowl represents one last chance to gain a positive from the 2009 season.

"We have to adjust some things and get ourselves on track to get back to the level of play we're after," he said. "We're already starting that transition."

The most exciting part of the Emerald Bowl may be the postgame handshake. You know it's been a down season for the Trojans when coaching manners have been discussed more than victories.

In November, after Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh decided to go for it on fourth down late in a lopsided victory over the bewildered Trojans, Carroll met Harbaugh at midfield and asked "What's your deal?" Many onlookers felt that Harbaugh's deal was this: Carroll had spent too many years rubbing his opponents' faces in his own teams' dominance.

As if to prove those onlookers' point, two weeks later, Carroll had another etiquette moment. Happy to take a knee against rival UCLA in the final minute, Carroll didn't like it when Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel took a time out to stop the clock. In response, Carroll called a deep pass that resulted in a 48-yard touchdown. Carroll celebrated on the sideline as though his team had just won the national championship and later said he held no grudge against Harbaugh.

"Whenever a coach makes a decision like that he's doing it for his team," Carroll said. "I have no problem with it. He gets to do whatever he wants on their side of the field and we get to do whatever we want on our side of the field.

"We went into the same mode two weeks later against UCLA," he added. "Totally different circumstances, but the same outlook. You have to make that decision and you go with it."

The result of his late-game decision against UCLA was a lopsided 28-7 victory. One of the few moments, in this incongruous year, of that old-time Trojan dominance.