Sark steps up for SC

The USC-Stanford game is where coaches make a name for themselves, especially first-year guys on their return to USC after doing so many things right the way Steve Sarkisian has in his nine months here.

SAN FRANCISCO -- The pep rally at Union Square was like old times Friday night. Although the Trojan gathering at Lefty O'Doul's has seen better days.

But that's not what matters here. USC at Stanford matters. Saturday matters a lot.

Matters for all of us -- those rooting for this team and playing for it, those covering it and coaching it.

But it matters most for Steve Sarkisian. Winning football games is his high-stakes world, as it is for every USC football coach. And sure, he's handled everything that's come his way thus far.

Even last week, despite a couple of speed bumps, he got his team to and through the Fresno State opener with flying colors. And he's had a couple more speed bumps this week, from Cody Kessler's toe to Leonard WIlliams' ankle. and so far, so good. Although the Labor Day weekend delay for Cody's "minor procedure" was a little troubling.

But they don't measure USC coaches in wins over Fresno State, although Pete Carroll's time might look a lot different without that one win we'll never forget. And handling speed bumps is a plus and not allowing them to turn into roadblocks. Just ask Lane Kiffin.

But that's the point. Pete won that Fresno game he had to win. And beat UCLA and Notre Dame, for the most part. Although he did get his head handed to him by Stanford a couple of times. So beating the Palo Alto princes isn't absolutely determinative But there are games that matter. Again, just ask Lane.

Now you don't always know which ones those are before they happen. Who'd have imagined a USC team that lost early to Kansas State and Washington State would wind up winning the Orange Bowl that same season.

It's about doing things in a special way. So far, so good. In the last dozen years, no USC team has done a better job getting the freshmen incorporated from the get-go. Not that they have much of a choice with the scholarship numbers. but Sark has managed it to this point.

He figured out a way. He has a plan. It seems to be evolving as we watch it. Which is why Sark has a chance here. He knows what he wants, but is not stuck in his ways. That's a fine line to walk.

And there's no way to define it. It's one of those deals where you know it when you see it. And what you see is a simply this: How many games did he win? Who did he beat? How did he do it?

And even though he scared the Cardinal the last two times out, beating them once two years ago with his Washington team, the folks on The Farm still like to call him "Seven-win Sark."

And now he has a chance to do what he did in Seattle, only with significantly better talent. And considerably more tradition. And a national recruiting base.

Sark, for the good and the bad of it, is no longer in Seattle. Now the question we'll start to get answered is this: Can he coach . . . at this level? And win . . . and win big.

Back in Kentucky, we had a saying, well, everybody in thoroughbred racing had it: "Horses for courses."

You need to get the right matchup of talent and team, of the person and the place. So far, Sark has been the right match for this USC program. Not saying that an Ed Orgeron/Clay Helton/Tee Martin/Clancy Pendergast/Tommie Robinson/Mike Ekeler/John Baxter/Mike Summers team wouldn't have ended up in the similar place going into Game 2. But we'll never know.

What we do know is that doesn't matter. All that matters now is Sark and Stanford. both teams have clearly been dancing around one another since mid-August and if truth be told, since months before that. There's a whole lot of coaching going into this game.

Because two teams that won their openers by a total of 84 points really didn't have to show anything. And for the most part didn't. "You prepare for it all," Sark said, which is what USC is trying to do even if the Tuesday and Wednesday practices weren't exactly where they wanted to be.

What if this smashmouth Stanford team has become a pass-first team with a running quarterback? And USC, is it really going to be able to go uptempo with 10 different receivers and a two-deep defense? Who are these guys? Not what we're used to seeing.

Which is why Saturday matters so much. Sark will get his chance, the chance that never came in Seattle. Not really. And now in Game 2 at USC, here it is.

And here is Sark, with a team better than he realized he'd have until well into spring ball. And now, in his own words, he has a team as good as any in the Pac-12, maybe better. No one has better talent, he's said on more than one occasion.

And now it comes down to this -- 60 minutes against a Stanford team that too often has been given the difference-making plays in down-to-the-wire games -- given them by USC coaches, by Trojan players trying too hard and a Stanford clock operator doing the same not to mention officials not trying hard enugh.

But of course, none of that matters now. USC-Stanford matters. Sark vs David Shaw matters. Not sure how that goes but we think Sark knows in his own mind how it's going to go.

All we can say is USC fans can only hope he's right. Just as Pat Haden is hoping he was right.

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