PALO ALTO -- There was so much talk about execution -- or the lack thereof -- after USC's sloppy 27-10 loss to Stanford before a less than sold-out crowd Saturday that it was impossible not to think of the late, great Trojan coach John McKay's memorable answer, after an ugly NFL loss, when asked about his team's execution.
"I'm in favor of it," McKay chirped. Only it's not the players USC fans would like to confer the ultimate penalty on after this night. They'd already suffered through the 52-6 Alabama embarrassment and were ready to write that off with a good performance here.
But one touchdown in four halves against Power Five programs? And seven penalties in the first half alone here although no personal foul penalties for the first time in eight games and no ejections for the first time in three. That has to count for something, right?.
And the USC defense held Christian McCaffrey to a mere 260 all-purpose yards, 201 under the 461 the Trojans allowed him in the Pac-12 Championship Game last December. Although his two touchdowns were all Stanford needed.
Which brings us to one postgame question for Stanford coach David Shaw that has to make USC fans squirm more than just a little bit:
Q: "Coach, for years Stanford couldn't see USC with binoculars. Now they've beaten the Trojans three times in less than one calendar year. What's that say about this program and what's it mean to you?"
David Shaw: "We don't use anyone but us to set our standards, right? USC's got a proud tradition and they've got a good football team. Now that football team is better than the one that everybody thought they saw against Alabama. Alabama played really well that game. This is a good Trojan football team. But we set our standard based on us. It doesn't matter that it's USC or UCLA, Notre Dame, whoever it is. Our standards are high. When we play well, we expect to win."
And USC is trying to be like Stanford? Really? Does that indicate the problem here?
Or does this comment from Clay Helton, who is bearing the brunt of USC fans' displeasure now that he's 1-4 after being named the permanent head coach? "They took a giant leap forward in my mind the way they competed today," Clay said, "this is going to become a good football team. We want to get better with each game. I saw some things that were improved upon in this football game, and that's the goal -- to improve each and every week."
So USC's goal is to improve. Stanford's is to win. Here are the coaches' evaluations of their teams. "Bottom line, I still think we can play better," Shaw said, "we want to play perfect up front. We talked about hitting our landmarks and straining to finish every single block. For the most part we did that tonight. We have the kind of backs if we give those guys a crease, those four-yard runs turn into really big plays."
And for USC, the good news was they cut their penalties from seven in the first half to one in the second.
One team expects to play perfect and finish every play. The other just hopes to get better. Better enough so that maybe USC doesn't keep getting the short end of the stick from Pac-12 officials who held on to their flags when Stanford D-linemen were making calls during the USC quarterback's cadence.
Or when Stanford defenders had a hold on both USC receivers -- JuJu Smith-Schuster and Tyler Petite -- who each had passes in their hands in the end zone while a Cardinal, as the photos show, was clearly fouling them before the ball arrived. But that's something this USC team has to earn in this league. They're not going to give it to you.
When offensive coordinator Tee Martin took the game apart, he described a team that made plenty of good plays, unlike against Alabama, but still didn't have a good offense. Not even close.
"Mistakes," Tee said, talking of how this USC team gets down to business every week with a "Tell the Truth Monday" which will come on Sunday in this shortened Utah week with the game Friday in Salt Lake City. They put it all out there for them, he says, with the video cutups showing all the mistakes.
But as much as we hate to say it, that's part of the problem. Or more than part of it, that is the problem. This isn't about making plays. Or pulling out plays from the grab bag of stuff USC has worked on. It's about figuring out who you are and how you win football games and who you win them with and how you practice your personnel to make that happen.
Does this team have an identity or a personality? It does. But it's not a winning one. It's not any part of the USC tradition. It's all over the place.
While Stanford is focused and clear about who it is and what it does, it has the luxury of reminding its quarterback, even a big new guy like 6-5, 230-pound Ryan Burns, "that we expect him to run for three or four first downs a game," Shaw said, which he did.
Or they can run three plays to set up 4.2-speedster Michael Rector on that 56-yard reverse for a touchdown. Or just change that wheel route to McCaffrey, also for a wide-open 56-yard TD, that depended on Rector pulling Adoree' Jackson across to the middle and then rubbing off the safety and there's no one there against the one player in this game who never should have been unattended.
Add those four scores up. Two that USC could have had, but didn't. And two Stanford got, but shouldn't have. Deduct 14 points from the Cardinal and add seven or 14 to USC's total and this is a very different result. heck, what if USC hadn't punted on fourth-and-six at the Stanford 44 with 9:12 left and made it.
Clay had an answer for why they did that but as we said on "Instant Analysis," that answer "was just words." But without meaning. Much like this game for USC. Plenty of plays. But not adding up to anything.
USC is the team it is. Just hoping to stop shooting itself in the foot. Hoping something good happens. Hoping it gets better this week. Hoping that it can get itself going as it gets into Pac-12 South play and somehow emerge as it did a year ago instead of opening 1-3 and giving Helton a 1-5 record as the "permanent" head coach, a distinction said with some irony as we type this.
"We love to play for Coach Helton," Sam Darnold said, who would love to play as well after a bit more limited use this week. Although nothing Max did in his 18-of-28 passing day for 191 yards with no interceptions would point in that direction.
Asked if he thought he should start, Sam said: "I don't know. It's Coach Helton's decision."
In this short week, Clay has a lot of decisions to make. Getting this team out of the ditch, out of a losing frame of mind, is the first one.
Not a USCFootball.com member? Sign up now and you'll get a seven day FREE trial! Join the Peristyle Family and get all the great information from USC football practices, Trojan football games, access to the Peristyle and all of the premium recruiting updates on USCFootball.com! Become a member today!