Among thetraditions beloved by USC's supporters--and reviled by its Pac-10 opponents--isthe cheer that gets heavy rotation when the Trojans put a game out of reach:"We are...SC!" In recent years that chant has been not only grating butalso gratuitous: With a quick-strike offense, a predatory defense, a HeismanTrophy winner or two and often huge margins of victory, USC cut an unmistakablefigure. But this season's team, despite a 6--0 start and the No. 3 ranking inthe BCS standings, has none of those characteristics. In fact there's enoughuncertainty about these Trojans that their cheering section ought to thinkabout replacing the declarative with the interrogatory. It's not so much"We are...SC!" but "Who is...SC?"
Are the Trojans ajuggernaut in low gear, so powerful that they have gone undefeated without evenhitting their stride? Or are they a team primed for a fall, with a dauntingfour-game stretch beginning on Nov. 11--home games against Oregon, Californiaand Notre Dame and a trip to the Rose Bowl to play UCLA (box, page 51)--thatcould knock them off the national championship track and force them to goslumming at some late-December bowl?
Each of USC'slast three victories, over Washington State, Washington and Arizona State, hasbeen by seven points or fewer, which has prompted rather pointed criticism.After a 26--20 win over Washington on Oct. 7, ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit saidthe Trojans "should apologize for the way they've been playing."Arizona State quarterback Rudy Carpenter wasn't quite as harsh after the SunDevils' 28--21 loss to USC on Oct. 14, but he declared that the Trojans aren'teven the class of their conference, much less the third-best team in thenation. "Cal and Oregon are a little more experienced," Carpenter said."I think they are better than USC."
No one would havedreamed of dismissing the Trojans that way during the past three seasons, whenMatt Leinart (Heisman winner, 2004) was rolling up huge yardage at quarterbackwhile Reggie Bush (Heisman winner, '05) and fellow tailback LenDale White weretaking turns faking out and flattening tacklers, leading USC to one undisputednational championship and another shared title. But all three stars headed tothe NFL after last season, leaving junior John David Booty at quarterback and apassel of untested talent, including Emmanuel Moody and Chauncey Washington, attailback. Add to that an unusually high number of injuries and a defense thathasn't been nearly as opportunistic as it has in the past, and it's clear thatUSC is no longer scary good, even if it is good enough to win. So far.
October 30, 2006
That assessmentdoesn't seem to ruffle the Trojans, who will grant you that they have lackedthe swagger and big-play ability of recent years--as long as you concede thateven Leinart, Bush, White and friends couldn't improve on an undefeated record."We've set very high standards around here, so for people to wonder aboutus is a very natural thing," says coach Pete Carroll. "We haven't beenscoring 50 or 60 points on teams the way we did last year. This year it's morelike 30. So, yes, it's different. But 6--0 is 6--0, and it would be a mistaketo take that for granted. Don't worry about us. We'll be just fine."
A few close callsagainst unranked opponents don't necessarily stamp a team as overrated, ofcourse, any more than regular-season dominance guarantees a title. USC's 2004national champions had to come from behind to beat Virginia Tech, while edgingStanford by three points and Oregon State by eight on their way to the title.Last year's Trojans thrashed almost all comers until Texas beat them in thechampionship game, snapping their 34-game winning streak. It's also notterribly instructive to compare the '06 Trojans with the '05 edition, becausealmost any team would pale next to that prolific outfit. Last year USC topped60 points three times and hung half a hundred seven times--or six more timesthan they have this season. "Only one 50-point game," Washington Statecoach Bill Doba says. "Wow. We should all have such problems."
The Trojans havegradually come to grips with the different approach they're going to have totake to reach a third consecutive BCS title game: cutting down on turnovers andpenalties, leaning more on a running attack that will eat up ground in smallerchunks than Bush did, and playing intelligently in close games. It's notglamorous, but it works. "The kids questioned themselves a little bit earlyon, wondering how come we weren't winning by as much," Carroll says."So we've been very straightforward about who we are and where we are andwhat's going on." Or, as linebacker Rey Maualuga puts it, "It's notgoing to be blowouts. Just wins."
It seemed thatthe Trojans weren't going to miss a beat when they opened by waxing Arkansas50--14 on the road, but they haven't come close to a performance that completesince. Their 28--22 victory at Washington State on Sept. 30 wasn't sealed untilsafety Taylor Mays intercepted a desperation pass near the end zone on thefinal play of the game. They held on for the six-point home win over Washingtonwhen the Huskies couldn't get off a play from the USC 15 before time expired.The following week the Trojans squandered a 21--0 lead against Arizona State,which tied the game when Booty misread a coverage and threw a pass directlyinto the hands of cornerback Keno Walter-White, who returned the interception37 yards for a touchdown. "A horrendous mistake," Carroll said. Thecollapse earned scattered boos from the fans at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseumbefore the Trojans drove 74 yards on the ground--64 of them on 10 carries byWashington--for the winning score.
Although he hasbeen guilty of the occasional glaring error, prompting rumblings from fans andmedia that Carroll should have chosen redshirt freshman Mark Sanchez as thestarter, Booty has been efficient, completing 63.3% of his passes for 13touchdowns and four interceptions. He hasn't thrown with Leinart's accuracy,particularly on deep balls, but teammates have been impressed with hiscomposure when things aren't going well. He has also shown great patience, onand off the field. As he was leaving practice last week, a white-haired fanoffered some unsolicited advice about throwing to his backs more, and Bootylistened, nodded politely and thanked him for his suggestions.
It was a subtlereminder of the scrutiny that comes with being the USC quarterback, especiallythe one who has to follow Leinart. But Booty,who threw only 56 passes in mop-upduty while sitting for two seasons behind Leinart, seems emotionally up to thetask. "It doesn't bother me that people expect a lot," he says."But I can't expect myself to do the things Matt did, not right away. We'vehad some pretty high-profile guys here, but it took time for them to becomethat. I'm not trying to be Matt, I'm just trying to keep helping us put winstogether and learn as I go."
Booty's job hasbeen made more difficult by constant shuffling in the lineup. The Trojans havelost their top three fullbacks (Brandon Hancock, Ryan Powdrell and StanleyHavili) to season-ending injuries, and their two standout wide receivers,Dwayne Jarrett (separated shoulder) and Steve Smith (sprained ankle), have beenlimited as well. USC has been so battered that at one point in the Washingtongame Booty was surrounded by a freshman tailback (Moody), a former walk-onfullback (Mike Brittingham) and a pair of receivers (sophomore Patrick Turnerand freshman Vidal Hazelton) who had 21 career catches between them.
Washington, ajunior who missed the last two seasons because of academic problems, wasinitially hindered by a hamstring injury, but his powerful running on theTrojans' winning drive against Arizona State was reminiscent of White andsignaled his return to health. He could make USC a much more dangerous team inthe second half of the season. "That's always been an element of ourgame," says center and senior co-captain Ryan Kalil. "It got overlookedsometimes because our offense could be pretty flashy, but the ability to poundthe ball is something we've been missing lately. If we can get back to that, itwill open things up for the rest of our offense, and you'll probably see usstart hitting some of those big plays again."
Though thediminished potency of USC's offense is more obvious, the dropoff on D might bemore to blame for the closer games. The defenses of recent years weren'tdominant, but they did have a knack for sacks and forcing turnovers that hasbeen nowhere in evidence this season. The Trojans have only nine sacks (lastyear they finished with 32), and no player has more than 1 1/2. The tamer passrush could be at least partly the result of a switch from the 4--3 look ofprevious years to a predominantly 3--4 scheme in order to take advantage of anabundance of outstanding linebackers. Opponents are also using more three-stepdrops and short passes to blunt the USC rush.
The Trojansforced 38 turnovers last season, second-best in the nation, but they have only10 this year, which ties them for 100th. That's particularly bothersome to thedefensive-minded Carroll, who values takeaways so much that his midweekpractices, which emphasize stripping the ball, recovering fumbles and catchingtipped passes, are dubbed Turnover Wednesdays. "People talk about theproblems with our fullbacks and receivers, but the biggest thing is we're nottaking the ball away from people," Carroll says. "That's the real thingthat changes games and creates big victory margins. Once we start doing that,we're going to be really hard to beat."
They're alreadyhard to beat, which is easy to forget. The Trojans are also becoming accustomedto the pressure of close games, which should benefit them in the second half ofthe season. "The schedule might be getting tougher," says Kalil."But so are we."
Weigh in on USC and other title contenders as the action unfolds with StewartMandel's Saturday Observations at SI.com/collegefootball.
Six Down, Six to Go
Who stands between USC and a third straight title-gameinvite
Oct. 28 at Oregon State: The Trojans' priority will beto contain tailback Yvenson Bernard (26, right), who has four 100-yard rushinggames and is by far the most reliable offensive weapon for a team averagingjust 15.8 points in conference play.
Nov. 4 at Stanford: The winless Cardinal's porousoffensive line will make it hard for quarterback Trent Edwards to move thechains. This should be the blowout USC is looking for: Six of Stanford's eightlosses have been by 21 points or more.
Nov. 11 Oregon: Quarterback Dennis Dixon, who isdangerous as both a runner and a passer, and the Ducks' spread offense will bea major challenge for the Trojans' defense, especially its suspectsecondary.
Nov. 18 California: If any Pac-10 team can match theTrojans' athleticism it is the Bears. Middle linebacker Desmond Bishop (10,above) leads a defense that is tough against the run, which means the outcomecould rest on John David Booty's arm.
Nov. 25 Notre Dame: The Trojans can't afford to getinto another shootout like last year's 34--31 classic victory in South Bend.One of the keys to keeping the score down will be containing Irish widereceiver Jeff Samardzija.
Dec. 2 at UCLA: This 77-year-old rivalry has had itsshare of upsets, and the Bruins nearly knocked off Notre Dame on the road lastSaturday. UCLA quarterback Ben Olson should be back from a knee injury as theBruins seek their first win over the Trojans since 1998.
"We're not taking the ball away from people,"says Carroll, (right). "That's the real thing that changes games. Once westart doing that, we're going to be REALLY HARD TO BEAT."
While the Trojans have been waiting for a running back to emerge from among(opposite, from left) Desmond Reed, C.J. Gable, Allen Bradford, Washington,Moody and Stafon Johnson, Booty has been solid though not spectacular undercenter.
Moody (26) and Washington have combined for 823 yards on the ground, but theylack Bush's knack for the big play.