The Real Question

The real question? How good is Southern California's football team? If the Trojans are good, Auburn's gut-wrenching 24-17 loss at the Los Angeles Coliseum on Monday night could bode well for the future. If they aren't, it could mean more trouble down the road. And we don't know at this point.

Certainly, USC has a fine quarterback in Carson Palmer. They have some good receivers. Norm Chow's BYU-style offense is difficult to deal with. That Auburn's defense gave up 24 points is not particularly alarming.

What is alarming for the Tigers is that the offense managed just 35 yards in the second half after gaining 246 in the first half. Amazingly, Carnell Williams had 97 rushing yards at halftime, looking every bit the All-American, and finished with 94 yards.

There was nothing and still is nothing to indicate that USC's defense should have been able to shut down anybody's offense that way. What that means for Auburn we will not know until we see what happens down the road.

Not all of it was USC's doing. Junior tight end Robert Johnson inexcusably took his eyes off the ball and dropped a certain touchdown pass that would have given Auburn the lead late in the third quarter. Two plays later, Anthony Mix dropped a laser-like throw from quarterback Daniel Cobb that would have been a touchdown. Make either one of those catches and Auburn might win. It didn't happen.

Offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino did not hide his unhappiness with Cobb's performance in the second half. He was mostly bothered by two situations in which Cobb made the wrong check on which way to run the ball, sending Williams straight into the strength of the defense for negative yardage.

Two plays might not seem like much, but in a game like that one with a plan as conservative as was Auburn's, those two plays could have been the difference in winning and losing.

"It cost us dearly," Petrino said.

Cobb did some good things, but he also showed some of the same distressing tendencies that he showed last season. He fumbled while scrambling on Auburn's first possession, giving the Trojans the ball for a short touchdown drive. With the scored tied 7-7 and Auburn at the USC 18, he threw an inexcusable interception, throwing the ball right into the arms of defensive end Omar Nazel. Instead of Auburn taking the lead, USC drove from there to a touchdown to take a 14-7 lead.

Even on the tying touchdown late in the second quarter, Cobb fumbled just before he reached the goal line. It was little more than good fortune that Ronnie Brown was there to snare the ball out of the air and fall into the end zone.

The rebuilt offensive line looked strong and confident in the first half. It looked confused and overmatched in the second half.

The Tigers were not good on third down on either side of the ball, converting just 3 of 11 on offense and giving up 7 of 13 on defense. The defense had a golden opportunity in the fourth quarter to give the ball back to the offense with a chance to win, but Palmer completed an 18-yard pass on third-and-11 and the Trojans ate up most of the last 10 minutes driving to the winning touchdown.

My guess is that USC is a good team but a long way from a great one. I would say the same about Auburn. It was an even matchup and the home team beat the team that had to travel across the country to play.

The Tigers should have ample opportunity to fix the problems. Even with just five days rest, they should handle Division I-AA Western Carolina with little problem Saturday. Vanderbilt, which was destroyed 45-3 at Georgia Tech, would not seem to be much of a threat a week later.

Going to Mississippi State the following Thursday will be difficult but Auburn should certainly be favored. Same thing goes for Syracuse's visit to Jordan-Hare Stadium nine days later. It is then that the real fun starts. On successive weeks, the Tigers will play Arkansas at home, at Florida, LSU at home and at Ole Miss. It is then that we will know what kind of team this is.

Here is a look at some of the good and the bad from Monday's loss:

THE GOOD

* Williams was spectacular in the first half, prompting All-America USC safety Troy Polamalu to say: "Their tailback was awesome. He was probably the best one we will see this season."

* Linebacker Karlos Dansby intercepted a pass to set up Auburn's first touchdown, had a sack, recovered a fumble and generally made life miserable for the Trojans.

* The offensive line, in the first half, at least showed potential for doing good things down the road.

* Eight redshirt freshmen and six true freshmen played and held their own.

* Linebacker Dontarrious Thomas played his usual brilliant game, making 13 tackles.

THE BAD

* Cobb didn't look a lot different than last season, making good plays and bad ones. If he is to have a successful senior season, he must find a way to stop making what he referred to as "bonehead plays." He narrowly avoided disaster on a couple of ill-advised throws that ended up being simple incompletions.

* Thirty-five yards of offense in the second half speaks for itself.

* The Trojans converted three third downs when they had 10 or more yards to go for a first down.

* Drops by Johnson and Mix could well have been the difference in the game.

The Tigers played hard. They could have won, but they didn't. Nothing about Monday's game says there isn't hope for the future. It could still be a special season. It could be a disappointing season.

It depends on how much the Tigers learned on a hot California Monday night and how they respond.


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