PALO ALTO -- It looks worse Sunday than it did Saturday night, if that's possible.
A slow, plodding, uncertain, unsure USC team's 27-10 fail in its Pac-12 opener in which it made some good plays but not any really big ones, and allowed some really bad big plays -- four or five of them that destroyed it -- makes it impossible to conclude anything other than this: It's all about the coaching.
Watch a Cal team, for example, score 50 on Texas. Or Colorado go into Ann Arbor and throw up 28 on the Wolverines. And did you see Louisville put up 63 on Florida State to start out the day Saturday. That's what competent coaching does.
It helps teams play with confidence. With a sense of who they are and what they can do. And then they go out and do it.
Which is where it's so difficult to have to watch what's happening at USC up close, the way AD Lynn Swann and Pres. Max Nikias were having to do on the sidelines at the end of the Stanford game. Those were not happy faces. Nor should there have been.
As someone who's been with this team from winter workouts through spring ball and the summer's player-run practices, it's almost impossible to consider what we're seeing but the more this team gets coached up, as it has in the six weeks since the first of August, the worse it gets. The slower it plays. The lower its football IQ goes. The more excuses it makes. The less it looks like it knows who it is or what it's supposed to do or how that's supposed to look.
That's not supposed to be the way it works. Even with a relatively new coaching staff, there should be a value-added piece of what they bring to this. We don't see it. The offense is simply a bunch of plays. Not a coherent identity.
The defense, as much better as it's played than the offense, has been prone to horrific, multiple-touchdown-producing breakdowns for opponents good enough to take advantage of it.
Not a good combination. One of the thoughts is that this has been a program so damaged over the past six years by NCAA sanctions, the excuse-making responses to those player-limiting sanctions, the lack of any sort of solid philosophy and culture as a result of four different head coaches in that time and the clear lack of any sort of coherent plan or ability to develop any sort of winning culture of USC football, the players look lost when they get into games against teams like Alabama and Stanford that come from a completely different place.
There's also this. In the name of stability and getting a good person to take it over, a person with all the personal qualities USC so badly needed at the top of the program, USC picked a good man -- Clay Helton -- who has been a part of that program for the last six years. As have some of his assistants. All of whom we like and respect for all they've done for USC football to help it stay afloat.
But is this the way you escape the recent past and tie in to the great, long history of USC football? Is it possible for them to not only diagnose the problem and come up with the fix, develop that culture of competence and toughness and confidence when they've only known a program that's gone from one chaotic bump in the road to the next?
Is it completely lost? Not yet. They have five days this week to get back in the game, to win at Utah to open the Pac-12 South, to get this team's -- and its coaches' -- collective football IQ up to a passable level. Sure, you can say Nick Saban had four years to figure it out at age 44 at Michigan State. Nick Saban. And John McKay got two terrible years at USC to start before figuring it out. And Pete Carroll stumbled a bit at the start, as well, they'll say.
But that was then. This is now. Coaches are being paid millions of dollars to get it right. This staff isn't getting it right. It's been getting it mostly wrong. These players are capable of much more, as we saw in snippets at the start of the Stanford game with an aggressive, quick-hitting run game that came and went. With the ability to throw the ball down the field -- at times. With the ability, again at times, to shut the Stanford offense down -- but only at times. But the kinds of things a coaching staff adds to the talent its given was almost all on the Stanford sidelines as the Cardinal beat USC for the third time in 12 months.
And as bad as this is playing out on the field game by game, how does this play out in recruiting? There are no more NCAA sanctions excuses. Sure, the damage of those unfair hits on the USC program are still there. But hasn't USC done as much self-inflicted harm now as the NCAA has?
Maybe that's a good place to start, with the best piece of professional advice for any leader in any field from the physicians Hippocratic Oath: "First, do no harm."
BY THE NUMBERS
*** 48,763: A less than sellout crowd tells us The Weekender isn't what it was for USC fans who turned out in droves two weeks ago in Texas and even Stanford fans are getting blase' about their superiority in this series over the last year.
*** 7-1: USC's penalties vs. Stanford's penalties in the first half. What else is there to say about how unready this team was to play. No excuses. No explanations. Get it right. Get it done. Or get out of here.
*** 17-17, 353-404: Those are the deceptively close statistics -- first downs were even at 17 and total offense had USC with 353 yards to Stanford's 404 -- in a game that was anything but.
*** 1-2: The last time a USC team started 1-2 came in Pete's first season -- 2001. They actually started 1-4. But with no running backs and no culture of competence, they got it turned around that season. Just the way this staff must -- this year. No grace period now. Hold that thought. Make that this week. Hold that. They don't have a whole week.
*** 6-5 to 5.8: Despite Christian McCaffrey and the explosive scoring plays, Stanford had just a slight per-play advantage of less than a yard. USC did a number of good things with very little payoff because of all the mistakes. Coaching staffs are there to get teams up to speed while teaching them how to do so without continually shooting themselves in the foot. That's not happening here.
THEY SAID IT
CLAY HELTON: "We've got some work to do. Can't feel sorry for ourselves. We've got Utah here in five days, we get on a plane. So we've got to get back tonight and get back to work tomorrow."
STANFORD COACH DAVID SHAW: On whether he was using the rope-a-dope to set USC up to stop the run and then hitting the Trojans with the 56-yard Michael Rector reverse for a touchdown: "Absolutely. You run certain plays to set up other plays, right? We ran power, counter, power, power, power counter, power, power, and then upstairs in the box we just watched and see if they're chasing from the back side. We thought they were chasing, and right before we called that play, oh, hey, Michael's coming up now. I said stay wide and run fast. You know, great, brilliant coaching by me (laughing)."
HELTON AGAIN: On why punt down 17 with 4th and 6 and just over 9:00 left in the game: "I think we were on the 50-yard line toward midfield with an offense that has a very dangerous weapon. I thought it was important to pin them deep, which we did. We got it inside the 10-yard line, if I recall that right."
CHRISTIAN MCCAFFREY: On what a new quarterback, Ryan Burns, and a mostly new O-line and receiving group are doing for him: On Burns: "We're very confident, first, second or third down knowing he'll get to the right checks, make the right reads and finish with a completion. Guys doing a great job getting open on third down as well." On the O-line: "They did a great job. Those nine, 10 boxes up there, they're grinding them and getting their face across and doing everything they can to open up holes. They did an unbelievable job, a huge progression from week one to week two."
the only injury we picked up on was that of center Nico Falah, who appeared to be getting treatment for a hand issue. Didn't see or hear anything else.
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!