It's more than a must win, tonight's Pac-12 South opener at 2-1 Arizona State (7:30, ESPN). But it's pretty much that too.
But the winning part of this will be more of a byproduct of a Trojan team that has to not only trust itself, and its coaches, but must play with total confidence in what it's doing.
Sure, that's asking a lot. Maybe four years of sanctions, and most of that with Lane Kiffin, don't wash away so easily.
But it's that confidence that's been missing here. Missing other than on signing day in the more than year and a half that Steve Sarkisian & Co. have been back at USC.
Missing completely a year ago at the Coliseum when the Trojans gave up three touchdowns in the final four minutes to the Sun Devils in a loss that still is hard to imagine. Although for Sark, it mimicked the loss his Washington team suffered in Tempe the year before on a 55-yard Hail Mary as the game ended.
And it was missing completely last week at at the Coliseum when a 10-point underdog Stanford team that couldn't score a touchdown two weeks earlier at Northwestern put up 41 points on a poorly prepared Trojans defense that looked totally unready for whatever the Cardinal chose to do.
Couldn't contain the Stanford run game with their base defense, USC coaches admitted, as they thought they could.
Didn't adjust soon enough, they said.
Couldn't explain the collapse in the final four minutes of the first half when a 21-10 lead was transformed into a 24-21 deficit at intermission.
Couldn't explain a 31-10 Stanford run in the game's final 34 minutes.
Couldn't explain the philosophical flaws in having a high-powered, hurryup offense for a team whose defense can't get the ball back for it.
Couldn't explain why they were so flummoxed when Stanford ran stuff "that wasn't on tape," Sark said.
Couldn't explain the lack of confidence in all things coaching can add to the talent assembled.
We're reminded of when that moment happened more than a decade ago. It was that September opener at Auburn for a 2003 Trojan team that no one was sure could follow up the 2002 guys who's lost not only Heisman Trophy hero Carson Palmer and replaced him with a lefty no one had much confidence in -- Matt Leinart, and a defense without its leader, Troy Polamalu.
What would that young Trojan team do? On the road in front of 83,000 at an SEC powerhouse loaded with all sorts of NFL talent and picked by some to win the national championship?
Well, thanks to the highlights of that game below that moffwolf posted on the Peristyle Friday, you can see for yourself.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZH6eO6mj60Y
That Trojans team played with relentless aggressiveness on defense, shutting down all that Auburn talent 23-0, with a half-a gameplan they entrusted Leinart, in his first start that day.
They came from everywhere. They made it physical. They made it about toughness. They didn't care about the 95 degree heat and humidity that seemed almost that high. They beat Auburn to the punch everywhere you could beat the Tigers.
They knew they were going to play harder and smarter. And that's exactly what they did.
You know who else knew that. Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville knew.
Stopping to talk to an Auburn booster outside the stadium after Friday's practice, he tried to dampen the fan's enthusiasm, telling him he didn't think they'd been able to match the kind of quickness and intensity and athleticism USC was going to play with on defense.
That's the missing element now. Stanford came in last week with a confidence it would be better prepared, tougher, quicker and smarter than a Trojan team that proved it was not any of those.
And now here we go again. Todd Graham, as hard as it may be to have much affection for the ASU coach, is no dummy. Ranked as the Pac-12's best coach by folks who think Sark is No. 9, it's hard to argue with that take the way Graham, who has never had USC's depth of talent, has had the upper hand here against Kiffin and Sark.
Which may be a coupling Sark had better shake with his former best bud. And do so before this night is over.
Watching that USC-Auburn video from 2003 might be good place to start. There was no quit in those guys. One block or two tacklers did not take any one of those Trojans out of a play. The effort, the absolute unwillingness to quit on a play, any play, every play, catches you when see it now.
Where has that been? Where was it last Saturday? And will we be asking that question after tonight?
And if we are, what does that say for Sark -- and his future as the man to bring USC back after the sanctions?
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