Pete Carroll found beat the heat searing Summer heat this first Saturday in September with a frosty green bath of Gatorade, courtesy of his football team. That simple gesture spoke volumes about the team's attitude toward their new coach.
Carroll and Company introduced a new tradition to the Trojan Family by marching the team through the peristyle entrance past thousands of cheering fans. It was a nice way to begin the day and a new era in USC football.
The Trojans did not play Nebraska, Michigan or even Alabama. Instead they got a scrappy San Jose State team that featured the nation's leading rusher in Deonce Whittaker. Regardless of their ranking, this was not a team the Trojans could afford to look past.
SC kicked off and it was nice to see David Newbury follow the precedent set by David Bell by putting the ball deep into the endzone. It was nice to see that most aspects of the Trojan kicking game were in better form from last year. It was even more comforting to realize that most aspects of the Trojan game was in better form from last year, which brought a resounding sigh of relief from the Trojan faithful.
To describe the 2001 Trojans one might use versatile, determined, flexible and fast. The SC offense was versatile and two of their touchdowns were called from formations never before seen by a Trojan fan. The staff was determined to show this team that they could win with the talent provided. Carroll's defense was flexible in use of its personnel. Kelly, Rideaux and especially McCullough were fast, very fast indeed.
The new look Trojan Defense did something no other team has been able to accomplish, they cut Deonce Whittaker's nationally best rushing average in half. The Spartan running back might know the way to San Jose but he seemed stuck in traffic on this visit to Los Angeles. In contrast SC's own featured back, Sultan McCullough managed rush hour like an RTD bus driver suddenly put behind the wheel of a five litre Mustang, moving with speed and power. McCullough put up impressive numbers, but was more impressive was that the coaches actually utilized him to his ability.
Coach Chow played a smart game of poker with his offense this first weekend of September. Not just against the Spartans, but also with the incoming Kansas State Wildcats. He played his entire game using only one hand, leaving the rest of the deck on the table to be drawn upon the next time he sits down. He gave his quarterback, who completed 75% of his passes, up close targets to hit and wide open lanes to find them. Carson showed good ball handling and field general skills. He looked confident, poised and ready to distance himself from anything associated with last season. Granted he did throw two bad passes, one well beyond the reach of wide receiver Kareem Kelly and the other right into the arms of a Spartan defender, but beyond that his game was solid.
Looking back at the broken collarbone that lead to a redshirt season, the loss of Ken O'Brien, which at the time seemed to be Hackett's first of many blunders, then the hiring of the new regime could be seen as a strangely twisted, yet fortuitous path. For now, Carson is in the hands of a true "guru," has matured and still has two full seasons to become the best quarterback to ever play for the USC Trojans.
Carroll was equally as brilliant as his offensive counterpart, with the utilization of his personnel. Grootegoed and Strong proved their mettle and might be the prototype for a new type linebacker at USC: fast and punishing. The linebacking unit as a whole, lead by Mike Pollard, SC's new headhunter was the most pleasant surprise of the day. They pursued well, stayed in their lanes and kept San Jose from cracking even seventy-five yards on the ground. The secondary and defensive line also did more than hold their own.
There is tremendous room for improvement on both sides of the ball. Too many penalties and missed assignments were witnessed, but it was the players, not the coaches who challenged one another to improve. It is this new found desire, ushered in by Carroll and Company, that was the most notable aspect of the 2001 Trojans - they appear to have found the will to win. It's a beautiful sight, indeed.