The obligatory question at bowl press conferences like the one where USC's offense was featured Wednesday morning at StubHub Center was asked in every way you can ask it: How the heck did you guys get here?
The Trojans, almost all seniors save for Sam Darnold, who joined coordinator Tee Martin on the stools in front of the cameras, had most of the answer. They've been answering it since September. Zach Banner, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Justin Davis and Darreus Rogers have been through this all before.
'The Sun Bowl, the Vegas Bowl, two years at the Holiday Bowl and now this," Tee said, "to see them get here in the Rose Bowl game is phenomenal."
But explaining exactly how it all happened and how it can be sustained for another week through the Rose Bowl, well, that will take some doing. Everybody, as you might guess, has his own take.
Start with Sam. Tee does. "Sam has that great confidence and stern, direct leadership ability," Tee said and had it from Day 1. Even as a redshirt a year ago. It's just how he is. It's really effective. But the thing that makes it more effective is how he plays."
Tee says he knew it was there in the early days of Sam's quarterbacking when USC's marquee offensive star, JuJu, came back to the huddle and started to tell Sam about a pattern he was running and Sam stopped him and explained to JuJu exactly how they were going to do it.
JuJu recalled. "I always liked to say how I was going to run something but Sam wanted to go by the book." And so they did. By Sam's book. It's called communicating. 'With me and Sam, that's what it is," JuJu said. "It's not personal."
"No one on our team takes it personal," Sam said. "You have to do it. You have to be on the same page with everyone."
Or vice versa. Everyone on Sam's page -- in the huddle. Or at the line of scrimmage. As Penn State coach James Franklin said multiple times Tuesday, "When they changed the quarterback . . . ," well, USC became "the most explosive, athletic team we'll see."
For Justin, it was learning "to block out all the outside noise," especially after the 1-3 start. "Everybody was down on us," they'd say. "USC is five years away."
"We blocked that out," Justin said. "We stuck to the plan and focused on football and getting better every day. We didn't focus on some dude talking trash on twitter."
And now: "Football is fun again," Justin said. For him, as well, agreeing with Tee that his cutting ability that makes him one of the best in college football is back. "It is," he said, thinking back to a play he made in practice last week after not trusting his sprained ankle for weeks. "I feel great, the best I've felt in months."
But the story of how the USC players came together that Monday after the late loss to Utah has been often told. "Point blank, we mostly just started doing what we needed to," Zach said. All the coaches, "Clay, Tee, Tyson Helton and Coach [Neil] Callaway deserve more credit than they're getting," Zach said. "If you knew football, you knew something had changed. That's why I had so much confidence in what we were doing."
And confidence has never been in short supply for Zach, who will be moving to Irvine next week to prepare for the NFL Combine. Not only did he not give up a sack the last six games but "not even a quarterback pressure," he says.
"I can only speak for the players," Zach said. "But we were going to step up and work hard." But if you want to talk about "those first three losses," Zach will. In one long sentence. Here they are: "Not finishing against Utah, not showing up against Stanford and not going into Alabama with the right things."
Zach does not elaborate but those things would be attitude, preparation and scheme. So we know what the deal with attitude and preparation is and how that changed, what about scheme? "Write that down and ask Coach Helton," Zach said. "I don't know what it is," he said referencing things like "a rhythm and flow" to the play-calling. "But it would be stupid of me to talk about what I don't know."
And yes, the way they block the run is different and their ability to run the football has made all the difference, Zach says. But that's above his pay grade the way it's exactly going together. Although against Penn State's athletic pass rushers, the big goal is protecting Sam.
"They're high-motor guys," Zach said. "You have to block to the whistle and through the whistle, or your quarterback will get nicked up."
"These guys are really athletic," Tee said of the PSU secondary. "Ohio State was one of the most athletic teams in the Big Ten and they were just stride for stride with their receivers and running backs . . . they kept up, their DBs kept up with their [Ohio State's] receivers . . . they're fast and they have size . . .I don't think it's a proverbial 'slow' Big ten vs. 'fast' Pac-12 match-up."
It's eight-game-win-streak USC vs. nine-game-win-streak Penn State. And no one's forgetting that. And yet, on the last question of the morning, as the USC players were heading off for meetings and practice, JuJu was asked something far off the focus for the week.
If you were heading off to play Alabama again, JuJu was asked, would you win?
For a few seconds, you could tell he didn't want to answer. Didn't want to go off the script. Didn't want to lose Rose Bowl focus. And didn't want to come off as a jerk who failed to accept the reality of September. So he squirmed. And scrunched up his face. And got very quiet.
But the question was asked. So JuJu, in a voice almost too quiet to be heard three feet away, said simply: "Yes."
USC would win, JuJu said. This is not September's team.
Which should be good enough to go in January when, for the fifth-year guys who have two really upbeat bowl wins on their resumes and two discouraging bowl losses, they get to go out on the right side of the ledger.
Winners of the Victory Bell against UCLA, the Shillelagh against Notre Dame and a Rose Bowl against the Big Ten champs Penn State.
They can't do September over but if you listen closely, maybe that's what they've been doing every day since.
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