If that Tommy Trojan statue really knew what was happening, he'd put some clothes on.
Since winning the 1996 Rose Bowl, Southern Cal football has been in an unprecedented funk. One bowl appearance (1998 Sun Bowl loss to TCU) in the last five seasons has USC fans longing for the days of John McKay, Student Body-Right and lesser NCAA surveillance. Both John Robinson and Paul Hackett were unceremoniously dumped, so now it is Pete Carroll's turn to reverse SC's recent poor fortunes. However from the geeks in the white sweaters to the fans waving those puffy red and yellow pom-poms, it's been more frustration for the Trojan faithful in 2001.
Dropping two of their first three games has already put Carroll on the hot seat. While these have been losses to Top-10 teams Oregon and Kansas State, it's been sloppy play and lack of a consistent offense that has the folks in La-La Land worried. The former New England Patriots head coach is no stranger to criticism (Boston radio personalities repeatedly questioned his manhood as the Patriots went south during his tenure there), but after only three games USC is facing some serious issues.
With a loss this Saturday against Stanford, USC would be looking at a 0-2 record in Pac-10 play, with a trip to Seattle to play the Huskies to follow. After beating San Jose State 21-10 in a rather ho-hum performance, this squad lost a very winnable 10-6 game against Kansas State at the Coliseum. Then came last week's heartbreaking loss that was symbolic of the team's troubles of recent years.
At its worst, USC plays sloppy, undisciplined football that costs themselves games. Witness R. Jay Soward's drop of a sure touchdown pass in Stanford's 35-31 win in LA two years ago. Then there is signal-caller Carson Palmer. The quarterback, like many of his Trojan teammates, is full of talent and potential but is very enigmatic at times. He holds the school records for most yards and touchdown passes thrown by a freshman. He was also on his way to a fine sophomore campaign in 1999 before getting his collarbone broken. However it is his inconsistent play that has SC fans exasperated. Against Oregon he threw touchdown passes of 75 and 93 yards, and totaled 411 passing yards for the game. Then again he also threw two key interceptions and was involved in the game's most pivotal play. In a play similar to one Mike Pawlawski made in the same situation to help Stanford come back to win the 1990 Big Game, Palmer threw the ball away instead of taking the sack on third down late in the game with his team nursing a one-point lead. The decision turned out to be costly as Oregon went on to kick the game-winning field goal with 16 seconds left to send USC back to SoCal with a 24-22 defeat.
So where do the Trojans go from here? The fact is their offense certainly has its weapons. When he's on, Palmer can look like some of the best USC quarterbacks ever, guys like Stanford-killers Rodney Peete and Brad Johnson. Norm Chow, the passing guru who groomed all those All-American quarterbacks at BYU is the new offensive coordinator and has a few solid receivers to work with as well. Kareem Kelly is one the best wide-outs in the conference and is an unquestioned deep threat. The former high school teammate of Stanford's own Chris Lewis had almost 800 receiving yards last season and is averaging almost 19 yards per-catch thus far this season. His lone touchdown catch was a 93-yarder against Oregon. Much to the chagrin of Stanford fans everywhere, he gives Ryan Fernandez and Ruben Carter 7-10 yards to play off the line of scrimmage.
Tailback U. is officially Yesterday U. as the Trojans haven't had a tailback lead the conference in rushing since Marcus Allen in 1981. Sultan McCullough though is force coming out of the backfield. The senior, aside from having a really cool name, rushed for 1,100 yards and six touchdowns in 2000. That performance, along with a 140-yard game against San Jose State in SC's opener, gave many SC fans reason to believe their offense would be as explosive as ever. However McCullough is netting almost a yard-and-a half less than that this time around. Senior backfield-mates Malaefou Mackenzie and Chad Pierson provide both blocking and experience. Mackenzie is a fifth-year senior who himself averaged almost seven yards a rush last season. Another familiar name among USC running backs is Michigan transfer and a former Stanford recruit, Justin Fargas.
Southern Cal has produced many outstanding offensive linemen over the years, as names like Munoz, Matthews and Boselli are synonymous with Troy's fine lineman tradition. Last years statistics give more evidence for the steep decline of USC football as the Trojans surrendered a conference-worst 41 sacks in 2000. They've cut down on that number significantly so far this time around. The prime "meats" include Hawaiian native Faaesea Mailo (6'3", 325), junior Zack Wilson (6'5", 320) and junior Phillip Eaves (6'6", 315). Of the starters, only Mailo is a senior so Stanford's D-line will have a significant edge in experience.
USC's "D" has shown a steady improvement thus far over last year's version. The defense itself only gave up 17 points against the explosive Oregon offense (the other seven points came on an interception return for a touchdown), while it held an equally potent Kansas State offense to just 26 yards passing.
Last year it was Southern California's pass defense that let them down: they surrendered over 2600 yards and 17 touchdowns through the air, worst in the Pac-10 for any team not named the Cal Bears. The secondary this time around is still fast, as Randy Fasani will have to keep an eye out for a couple of Stockton products at the corners, senior Chris "Let's get out of here, I've got the" Cash and junior Kevin Arbet. Cash picked off two passes in 2000. Both have pretty good size for corners (5'11'). Last year's starting safeties, Troy Polamalu and DeShaun Hill, return to roam the secondary. Cash, Polamalu and Hill are the team's returning leaders in interceptions with two each.
Don't look for any Willie McGinnest or Jack Del Rio clones at linebacker for USC. Stanford-killer and former All-Pac-10 linebacker Zeke Moreno has moved on to the NFL, but seniors John Cousins (6'2", 220) and Henry Wallace (6'2, 210) return.
Kicking has been inconsistent in 2001. David "No, I've never attended Menlo College" Davis missed an extra point a key field goal attempt in the 10-6 loss to Kansas State. He did though kick a 39-yarder with nine minutes left in the Oregon game and would have of course been the hero had it not been for Joey Harrington's heroics.
Prediction: Everyone else is doing it, so why don't we? Oregon all of a sudden loves to play USC, and Cal's beaten the Trojans in each of their last three meetings. Even the Cougs managed to steal one at the Coliseum last year. Stanford is going for three straight against Troy for the first time since 1955-57. We're talking the Brodie years here! What the hell, why not a three-peat? We send these hooligans even further into decline, 27-17!