ARLINGTON, Tex. -- There's a defining difference between the great college football programs, even the good ones, and the programs down where USC finds itself right now after getting drubbed 52-6 by defending national champion Alabama in the Advocare Classic in front of 81,359 at AT&T Stadium and a national TV audience in the prime time ABC game.
Those programs, unlike USC, have answers.
Clay Helton's Trojans, followed here by a crowd of cardinal-and-gold-wearing fans that took up well over a third of this stadium yearning for a return of the USC of a decade ago, offered only questions. No answers.
What would they do when they got punched in the mouth, USC fans wondered. Is this team tough enough to take a punch? Well, maybe they answered that one. They're not.
But Alabama is. After trailing USC 3-0 through a scoreless first 22:14, Nick Saban's Alabama team picked itself up, dusted itself off -- and rattled off 52 points over the next 28:11. And did so with the second quarterback they inserted into the game, freshman Jalen Hurts, who like all four of Bama's quarterbacks, had struggled through fall practice.
How do you analyze that? Or parse it?
How do you make sense of only the third loss in Trojan history of more than 40 points -- Michigan by 49-0 in 1947 and Notre Dame by 51-0 in 1966? So now Alabama -- one of the other of college football's historic big five -- joins the trio of Trojan-stompers. And while we're talking history here, that 1947 USC team did manage to make it to the Rose Bowl so the brave talk afterward might not be totally outside the realm of reality.
Maybe this team won't let this game define them. Maybe they'll get it together by next Saturday morning for Utah State at the Coliseum where the fan enthusiasm won't match this night's. And maybe the next weekend -- for The Weekender -- they'll get it together for a Stanford team with two weeks to get ready for them, a Cardinal team that surely went to school on how Bama bullied these Trojans.
Or will USC players still be explaining just exactly how it was Tide receiver ArDarius Stewart was uncovered from his first step of a 71-yard TD pass reception to start the second half. Turns out USC blitzed both safety Chris Hawkins and corner Iman Marshall and as Hawkins was knocked to the ground on his blitz, he looked to see who the man knocking him down was and it was his teammate Marshall.
"Uh oh," Hawkins told himself, "this isn't going to end well." The play and the game. And it did not. Not the punt snap that Aussie Chris Tilbey, who otherwise played well on a double-digit punt night, muffed and fell on on his own 15, as he'd been taught, giving the Tide another TD on a play where Bama was dropping back on a return and no one was coming. He had plenty of time to pick it up and punt it. Only he didn't.
Then there was the pass play that finished off a first half that should have ended 3-3 when Max Browne drilled a Bama D-lineman with his strongest effort of the night, only to have it deflected to the Tide's Marlon Humphrey for an 18-yard Pick Six.
This was ugly stuff. It was USC's worst season-opening loss. Its first game without a touchdown in 19 years. And as for playing against a No. 1 team, the last time USC did that, it lost by just nine -- 22-13 -- to Notre Dame in 2012 with backup quarterback Max Wittek. This is uncharted territory. That team, of course, was coached by Lane Kiffin, who couldn't get off the field for all the hugs and handshakes from USC coaches, players and staffers whose sincerity seemed to catch Lane by surprise.
It caught us by surprise as well. We're guessing had things gone the other way, Alabama's players, and Saban, would not have been hugging a Trojan they knew. But USC is, if nothing, a bunch of nice guys who don't hold a grudge.
Well, not against Alabama. Justin Davis was mad at his team. "What makes me mad," USC's senior tailback said, "is we have all these playmakers playing fast and making plays in the spring and summer . . . and then this."
And then this. "I don't think they beat the crap out of us," said sophomore linebacker Cameron Smith, whose nine tackles tied him with another sophomore, Porter Gustin, for a USC high -- along with his fumble recovery. "It is what it is. They're a great team."
And USC is anything but. That "physicality" USC has been talking about sine last December, well, it's in the same place it was in USC's last game in the Holiday Bowl -- nowhere to be found. Maybe next week, Clay said. "Hopefully," he said. "Physicality is being able to impose your will in the run game. We were not."
Alabama managed to stuff USC's run game (allowing just 64 yards in 30 tries, a 2.3 average) with four down linemen. The other seven were limiting JuJu Smith-Schuster to one catch. "Bracketing him," Max Browne said.
And while Alabama set Advocare Classic records for most points in a game and a quarter, USC set the record for most punts (10).
And while Saban was calling this "a great win," but one that cried out for each of his players to assess their performance while not looking at the scoreboard, Clay was talking about USC's season goal remaining the same -- "to be Pac-12 champions."
But until they stop making critical mistakes and committing egregious penalties, as senior Jabari Ruffin did on a late stomp after a kickoff that gave Alabama another short field to score and got him ejected, that's not happening.
Nor will it happen, Tee Martin said of his "trial by fire" in his first game as offensive coordinator, with USC doing virtually nothing on first and second downs and facing third and long all night long. USC converted just four of 18 there while getting out gained 465 yards to 194.
Sure, the defense deserved far better. And sure, most of those points weren't on it. But there they are, on the board for everyone to see: Alabama 52, USC 6.
And there's no way to change that. Not any. You can come back from it. Maybe even overcome it. But it's never going away. What USC once did to SEC teams a decade ago, well, it's coming back around on them now.
Is Clay the right man for this job? Should USC have gone all-out for Houston's Tom Herman? If he'd been here, would this have happened? And if Nick Saban had taken over at USC last December, would Alabama have won this game this way?
You know the answer to that. We all do. USC fans want to be playing on this stage. And they're going to demand a coach who can get them there. But for now, he'd better beat Utah State for starters next Saturday morning in what will be a pretty quiet Coliseum.
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