All about Sark . . . or not

It's USC-UCLA. It's about big players making big plays and big coaches figuring out how not to get in the way. Not an easy task. That's why there are so few dominant coaches in this series. Steve Sarkisian gets his first shot at putting his name on it Saturday in a season that hasn't been kind to him in end-game scenarios.


It's players making plays.

And coaches getting out of their way.

And yet, when you get down to it, it's all about the coach -- as much as it's all about the players.

Sounds like a contradiction in terms -- which it is. But let's just say it this way: If you're talking about the gameplan Saturday night late, and you're a USC fan, that's probably a very bad thing.

In our previous 13 Crosstown Rivalry games, the one time gameplan mattered enough to talk about in the postgame was that infamous 13-9 national championship-denying break in a 13-game USC streak in 2006. That was on the coaches.

And if you're USC, you want this game on the players. Like the youtube compilation of top Trojans' plays in the 84 years of the series since 1929. It's about players making plays.

And just as Steve Sarkisian remembered it Thursday, there was Antuan Simmons' behind-his-leg 2001 Pick Six just as Sark described it from his first year on Pete Carroll's staff in a series-defining win for Pete's time at USC.

But what Sark didn't mention and the highlights pick up was how UCLA quarterback Cory Paus had no chance to see downfield or take his time to deliver the football with a heat-seeking-safety-missile Troy Polamalu bearing down on him.

So which will it be, Brett Hundley allowed to throw it with impunity two years ago -- or run it pretty much unopposed last year? Your choice, Sark and Justin Wilcox. Because this is about you in this way. It's your call. This is your team.

Do you free your players to make plays the entire game? Do you trust them to make plays the entire game? Do you think you have to help them with tricks on offense and safe, safe, safe calls on defense . . . still in Game 11?

Or as Pete was building to 13 seasons ago, do you trust this year's Troy Polamalu and Antuan Simmons and dare we say it, Sunny Byrd, to make the plays that matter?

Sark explained the issue of this team that could be 9-1 and playing this game for the record books only and how two end-game collapses have folks wondering what's going as ESPN's Ted Miller asked Sark about this week.

"We were in tight games when Pete was here, too, but there was a level of knowing that we were going to make the play at the critical moment," Sark told Miller this week for a story examining whether USC could ever reach those heights again.

"There was a real belief in that. I don't want to say I assumed it was still here, but you don't really know," Sark said. "We obviously have had some chances here in critical moments, and you think, 'Oh, USC is going to make that play.' We've had a couple of those, and we've missed some chances. We have to get the belief and execution at the most critical moments."

"We" do indeed. "We" have to trust someone "we" believe in. That's the guy, or guys, on the sidelines. That tough guy, that smart guy, that guy whose players make plays for him because he trusts them to, because he doesn't get in their way, he doesn't limit them, he doesn't go for trickery when it's time to make a play, he just goes for it -- and goes for it in the second half as hard as he goes for it in the first half.

And for a USC team that's the nation's most impressive coming out of the gate, outscoring opponents 129-22 in the first quarter, that may be all-important. The breakdown of early offense vs. early defense is even more striking. USC is equally and amazingly successful.

Averaging 12.9 points in the first quarter, USC is No. 3 in the nation behind only Baylor (14.0) and TCU (13.1). Which is great.

But the impressive thing for USC is the way the Trojans are No. 2 in the nation in scoring defense as well, allowing opponents a mere 2.2 points the first 15 minutes each game.

Sounds like an almost unbeatable combination. Up there with Baylor and TCU on offense, and way ahead of the two contenders for a spot in the College Football Playoffs on defense with Baylor opening at No. 61 in the first quarter allowing 6.1 points while TCU is way down at No. 90 allowing 7.8 points per first quarter.

So what's going on here? Well, games are going on and USC isn't. The Trojans drop off from those No. 2 and No. 3 rankings in the first quarter to a way lower place in the fourth quarter.

Way, way lower. On offense UC drops to No. 65 in the nation with just 6.6 points per fourth quarter. It's even worse on defense. USC drops from No. 2 to No. 85, from 2.2 points allowed the first 15 minutes to 7.8 points allowed the last 15.

Add those up and a USC team that's outscoring opponents 129-22 the first quarter finds itself outscored 78-66 in the final 15. Think those 12 points don't matter?

Think again. The difference between an unbeaten USC team and the 7-3 Trojans of today is a total of 13 points.

And if you think it's a physical failing, think again. This isn't 2013 when they really did get tired with almost no rotation -- especially on defense. Ask the Trojans players about that and they get almost combative at the thought that there's any sort of physical issue at the ends of games.

There's an issue for the defense, all right, but it's the dropoff in scoring by the offense. USC scores 21.1 points the first half, just 14.1 the second. And if it is an end-game issue, then why does the dropoff start in the third quarter where a USC team that scores 129 points in first quarter falls to 75 in the third.

Again, not a failure that's physical. But a choice. A failure of will. A conscious decision to call off the offense, to tamp down the passing game and amp up the too-often-stymied run game.

The pattern holds on defense. A USC team that's given up a mere 22 points in all 10 first quarters starts playing it safer and softer in crunch time, allowing 78 when it matters most.

Some will say it's on the players. And we agree. Players make plays. Coaches let them. Free them. Inspire them. Encourage them. Convince them. Get them to believe not hope.

Jim Mora did it for a Bruin team that got whacked 50-0 the year before he got here. Now there are breathless, over-the-top pundits -- not that that should surprise us -- in LA writing silly stuff this week saying that all that matters in this game is what UCLA does.

And that USC is merely a supporting player Saturday. That it's the Bruin story line that matters. After all, in this movie-making town, they have the great director who gets the best out of his actors/players.

And sure, on the other side, they coulda', shoulda' and if only they woulda' done it right at the end of a couple of games, if they'd allowed their players to make plays, or prepared them to, they'd have been the nation's darlings, the little underdogs with 48 scholarship players so unfairly taken down by the NCAA, the team with six true freshman starters that wouldn't go away.

Make two more plays this season, one at the end of the Arizona State game and the Utah game, both completely in their control, and they're on their way to Levi's Stadium in two weeks. And GameDay is here at the Rose Bowl instead of Harvard-Yale to document the little Trojan program that somehow managed to get back on top -- to answer Miller's ESPN question.

But the great thing about football season is that until it's over, you get the next Saturday -- and maybe the next after that. And for a USC team with two archrivals, something very few programs can boast, UCLA and Notre Dame come up in the next eight days.

And for Sark, and Wilcox, the chance to show that they are to be trusted at the end of games presents itself once again. Although if they do it right after intermission, maybe it doesn't even come down to that.

Because this could be a very good football team. In fact, it is. You can't run up a 129-22 first quarter edge over 10 games if you're not.

So now it's up to Sark to make it not about him. We asked him that Thursday. It's his first Crosstown Rivalry game in a series that does belong to the players and yet goes to the coaches over time. No getting around it.

How does Sark handle it, a week where so much is on the head coach to get out of the way. Does it take anything special to get that done?

"No, I'm fine," Sark said with a big grin. "It's pretty normal to me."

Only it's not. It's USC-UCLA. And it's on you, Sark, to make it not about you.

Have fun getting that done. Because if you do, you will have fun here.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at Top Stories