USC's next game? It's not Arizona State

Next up for USC this week is figuring it all out and what to do next. But how do you know what went wrong in the Stanford game if you don't want to take a really hard look at how you got there and who you got there with.

Like most folks here, you're probably looking to USC's next game -- Saturday in Tempe on the two-year anniversary of Lane Kiffin's defenestration (look it up) and wondering how this all works out for Trojan football.

But you'd be wrong. A 2-1 Arizona State Sun Devils team that doesn't appear to be exactly what we thought it would be is not the next game for these Trojans right now.

First comes the Blame Game.

We've all been playing it but with USC not returning to the practice field until Tuesday morning, we have no idea how this is going to play out. But play out it must.

There are lots of players. Just from reading the Peristyle the last two days, the blame game has fingered, of course, Steve Sarkisian. And defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, not necessarily in that order, with Sark on top only because he's the man in charge and brought much of his staff with him almost two years ago now.

But those two are hardly the only ones the finger of blame is pointing to. Start with AD Pat Haden, and his boss, Pres. Max Nikias. It's their fault for the hiring, the critics said then, and there's no quieting them now save winning out the rest of the way.

Toss in the rest of the defensive coaches. No one's blameless on that side of the ball. And what about Clay Helton? They needed 42 points and got just 31. And of course, Bob Connelly, just because . . . well, because.

Ditto for the Coliseum crowd. Those weenies just sat there. And how about the players. Cody Kessler? Hey, he may have been 25 of 32 for three TDs with no interceptions but what about that one ball that Tre Madden had to reach back for.

It's the seniors' fault. They were never good enough as people on the P name them one after the other. Or it's the freshmen. They're not there yet. What did you expect?

It's Ed Orgeron's fault. No, really. He didn't recruit enough Leonard Williams types to replace Leonard when he left.

And Adoree' Jackson. Taking all those crazy chances. C'mon. What's up with that. And how about the fancy hotel they stayed at during fall camp. Way too soft for these guys. Toughen 'em up.

It's the untalented D-line. Or maybe the invisible linebackers. Surely it's the too small secondary. Take your pick. Any and all.

Not that any of this is unexpected. The third loss in Sark's 16-game USC tenure to a double-digit underdog -- and this one by double digits -- was pretty sure to get this sort of reaction. Sark had proclaimed his sixth-ranked Trojans "ready to play" Thursday.

Clearly they were not. Even with a 21-10 lead at home with just four minutes left in the first half. That 31-10 run the rest of the way by a Stanford team that could manage just six points against Northwestern's two- and three-star players two weeks ago is imprinted in our minds.

The last time a Stanford team was in town, a team ranked No. 4 and far more talented than this year's Stanford team, it found itself shut down by a 12-man Trojan defense that turned the Coliseum into as joyous a place as any USC fan had experienced in decades.

And now this: That howling Coliseum turned into a mausoleum Saturday.

But as much as the point/counterpoint blame gamers would like to matter here, they probably don't. Not much anyway.

But there is a blame game that must resolve itself this week. Who do the real players blame? And in attempting to correct what played out Saturday, who do the coaches blame and how do they go about it with credibility?

Other than the D-line's penetraton and contain failures, Sark didn't seem inclined to blame anyone in his Sunday conference call.

We're thinking just saying "That's football" won't get it done here. There's much more to it than a shrug and an encouraging word about a clearer focus going forward.

But how, you have to think the players will ask this week, can these coaches who didn't put us into position to succeed against Stanford get it right now for ASU? Why was there all this talk of playing physical and aggressive and tough and getting after it abandoned when Stanford hit town?

Wasn't one of the thoughts that playing more press coverage would also allow the secondary to be much more an active part of stopping the run?

And yet time and again, neither the linebackers nor the defensive backs seemed in position, or in motion, to get to the edge before Christian McCaffrey, hardly Leonard Fournette, got there and turned it up?

How was a D-line, allowed to be outnumbered so often at the point of attack, supposed to make that work? Sure, the idea, as Sark said Sunday, is to play a team that favors the run game on their side of the line of scrimmage. Easy to say. Not so easy to do the way USC attempted it. And coached it. And schemed it.

One would think a USC that figured it should have scored 42 points on a Stanford team that's given up more than 30 only once in the last 39 games shouldn't have had that much trouble figuring out what it must do on defense.

Doesn't a USC team that's going to score points the way this team is going to score them have to take chances on defense? Doesn't it have to give a team like Stanford bad plays, not let Stanford drive it, not let it chew up five yards a crack on first down, not let it have the time to let lumbering receivers run free across the fall back zone on the back line, not let it have the ball for twice the amount of time your offense has it.

You want 42 points? How about splitting the time of posession 50-50 instead of 66-34. Which is why you have to give Stanford a bad play every three or four and make them play from behind the way they never want to play.

But that means the USC coaches must trust their players to go for it. They have to turn them loose. They have to trust them to get the job done. They can't sit on a lead when they're up 21-10 and it's almost halftime. Go for the jugular. Pick one off. Take one back. Don't be afraid.

Don't say you're going to do it differently this season -- and then retreat back into your shell the way you did a year ago when you thought you didn't have the numbers.

And if you care about your fans, don't tell them you're going to go for it, that you're going to "bully" people with your talent and numbers and physicality, and then go out and let the game be played on your side of the line of scrimmage.

You can't do that. You have to have your team "ready to play" on Stanford's side of the line of scrimmage. Or at least look like you're trying to.

And you don't really have to convince us, or the USC fans, that you know how to do that. Saturday's score will tell us that, at least for this week.

You have to convince your players that they should listen to you. That you know what you're doing. That you're not afraid to go for it. That you're tough enough deep down to make this happen. That you're sure enough of who you are and who your team is.

Right now, that does not seem to be the case. And if you want to get ahead in the blame game -- and stay there -- you'd better figure out some things fast.

Because if you lose your players, losing games will quickly follow.

Avoiding the blame there won't be possible. This is more than just a game. It's the only game in town right now.

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