'Long journey' made short Saturday

It probably shouldn't be this way but Saturday's USC-Oregon State game will be one of the most important moments in Steve Sarkisian's six-year head coaching career. Is it a "must win"? It is.

It may well be the most important game in Steve Sarkisian's coaching career, Saturday's USC-Oregon State game at the Coliseum. No, really.

Last year's come-from-behind Apple Cup win over Washington State for Sark's Huskies is probably right up there in the last game he coached for UW allowing him to bounce back to USC. A second straight loss to UW's underdog archrival probably would have severely complicated his return.

But now, "just three games in" on what he's calling his "long journey," Sark is in a place no one expected him to be. And we're not talking the 2-1 record but the stumbling loss to Boston College following the last-minute win at self-destructive Stanford.

The honeymoon is pretty much over. The doubters are back, the ones who wondered how do you send packing the people who did an unbelievable job saving a 10-4 season after Lane Kiffin was sent on his way after five games. The meltdown on both sides of the ball at BC have some wondering where this is going.

That's how it goes. You dodge a bullet in Palo Alto, find yourselves No. 9 in the nation playing freshmen on a talented, if somewhat precariously limited roster, and then comes the confusion.

Can't run the ball but keep trying. Can't stop the run you know is coming. Can't line up. Can't communicate. Can't execute. Can't adjust. And maybe worst of all, can;t stop getting pushed around and physically dominated by a seriously less-talented BC team.

A USC team that was changing the way it did things, going high-speed, high-energy, uptempo as heck and practicing in ways no one around here has ever seen, Sark said, all of a sudden had been stopped in its tracks.

The goal was to average 80 plays a game. And after 105 in the opener, that looked like a way-too-low expectation. But then came 129 in the next two games, a 64.5 average, which puts USC 2014 into USC 2013 territory when the Trojans averaged the second fewest plays in the Pac-12 at 65.8. But at least then, Kiffin's goal was to do just that by slowing the game down for his limited roster.

It was supposed to be different this time around, we were told through the winter, spring and summer. And indeed, watching a players-led Trojans team night after night in the summer running more than 100 plays in a little more than an hour, that seemed to be the reality.

When that high-energy pace of play extended through August and rolled right through Fresno State with those Pac-12 record 105 plays, it was indeed the reality, it seemed. And then in two straight battles of coaching wills, opponents clearly figured out how to stop USC from doing what it wanted to do.

And the Trojans couldn't figure out how to get back up to speed, especially against BC, with nine straight possessions over nearly 40 minutes producing one first down. Was that a function of a flawed gameplan or an inability to adjust or recognize what was happening in the flow of the game? Probably some of both.

Sark wasn't kidding when he said first downs are underrated. And now this team is back to emphasizing them. He was talking about what they're doing on first down in practice this week while we'd just like to see them get them and keep the drives moving.

"Stubborn" was a word Sark used to describe his offensive playcalling problems the last two games. And stubborn isn't necessarily a bad thing. John McKay was stubborn. Pete Carroll was stubborn. But so was Lane Kiffin. And now Sark.

So it's not about being stubborn. It's about being smart. And coaching smart. And knowing your players. And what they can do. And what you can do. And in a battle of wills that a football game always is, stubborn may not be a bug in the gameplan but it's not a feature, either.

Which gets us to playcalling and head coaching -- and how you do the two together. Some can do it. Pete could call his defense for a while. And chime in on the playcalling. A number of NFL guys especially seem to manage it. And how well did Clay Helton pull it off in the Las Vegas Bowl.

But is this the best way for USC to go right now. If it's in the best interests of this team in practice for the head coach to spread himself out over the field in different places doing different things, is not the way you practice a sign for how you should go about it when you get to games?

We're thinking about halftime at BC. And how a USC defense that described itself variously as "pressing," "panicking" and "trying to do too much" might have needed some handholding from the head coach as it tried to figure out how to stop a team that couldn't pass it from running the ball down its throat.

Although the same might be said for a USC offense that had gone the last five possessions before intermission with a single first down while netting just 31 yards on 14 plays, turning a 17-6 lead into a 20-17 deficit. Who could have whispered into the ear of that playcaller to "Stop running the ball." Not the head coach. He was calling the plays.

So now you have a team that returns to the field the second half doing the same thing with the same result and falling further behind with no help from the sidelines.

Not to fear, quarterback Cody Kessler said this week. Asked about USC's offensive problems, "We've fixed them," he said Tuesday. And as much as the work against the Scout team looked more game tempo, there wasn't the push and flying around there was in August. Or the summer now that game weeks are here. Not enough time for that.

USC is a team, as Sark has said, that would be able to match up each week against an opponent. So that side of it seems to be more emphasized than making an opponent match up against USC. One week they'll do one thing, the next week something else.

And there you have the essential battle. Who can force their will on the other guy. USC hasn't shown a great deal of that the last two games and the likelihood of getting a David Shaw-like crazy Red Zone moment the rest of this season isn't something you'd want to count on.

This team has to get better -- every game. These coaches have to do better. These players, and this USC fan base, know how that can happen after a midseason turnaround last year. This season should not have needed one although the number of freshmen, talented as they are, is a unique challenge.

But even though we're "only three games into it," as Sark said three times Thursday, Game 4 had better not go South, because a team that Sark calls "awesome" has been here and done all that already.

This team, many of them anyway, knows what it means to do what it takes on the fly and Sark praises them rightly for "their willingness to accept us, to accept our newness, to accept the tough coaching . . . they want to get better and I'm very appreciative of that . . . I can accept that any day of the week . . . we're not perfect, and I don't expect us to be perfect Saturday night but I do expect us to play hard, to play physical, to play smart football -- and to play better football than we've been playing."

Last year in Corvallis, an underdog USC team playing in a place that had been very tough on the Trojans against an OSU team with the nation's top receiver to go with quarterback Sean Mannion took it to the Beavs in a big way. And realized just how much a smart set of players and coaches, working together, could get done.

What they'd better get done, in this year when recruiting returns to a much-needed 25, is get this thing righted these two weeks at home with Arizona State coming in next week although that hardly matters if USC doesn't take care of business this Saturday.

It really is all that matters. Sark has to know that. Sure, this team may be just "three games into it," something a first-year coach with a multi-year contract seems to be saying often now.

But a snarky response might be that the Titanic was just four days into what its owners believed would be decades of crossing the ocean before it hit that iceberg. Some journeys don't go as long as planned if they get off to a bad-enough start.

This would be one of those bad starts if Oregon State manages to do here this year what it couldn't in Corvallis last year.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.

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