There's no place like home

Tedford and Rodgers - the Bears, oh my! These last two weeks have felt like a trip into Oz, listening to the Trojan faithful. Cries from Cowardly Lions, Scare Crows and trembling Tin Men have all but drowned out, what should be the noise of a 16 home game winning streak and National Championship.

Tedford and Rodgers - the Bears, oh my!  These last two weeks have felt like a trip into Oz, listening to the Trojan faithful. Cries from Cowardly Lions, Scare Crows and trembling Tin Men have all but drowned out, what should be the noise of a 16 home game winning streak and National Championship.  


I understand.  Shoot, I'd love it if this game, along with all the others were lay downs.  Or would I?  I look back to my youth, when all I can remember about USC football was that they were the good guys and everybody else was...not.  What was I, five, six, seven in the days of the original Wild Bunch and the Juice on the Loose.  The Cardiac Kids – games won by a fieldgoal or blocked extra point.  As good as the Trojans were, the tough games, which we won and lost were tests of character.  They were makers of men, builders of champions.


This weekend is no different.  Cal is going to be tough.  They are a very good team.  But that's okay.  In fact, it's exciting.  Maybe that's why I'm whistling today, instead of hiding under my bed, frightened of those mean ol' Bears.  I guess I am finally, completely "in".  You should be, too.  You see it's not just about winning or losing – this thing that Trojan head coach Pete Carroll has created, since his arrival to our university.  It's about building character and turning a group of young men from individual performers into a team of believers.  The Stanford victory was the springboard to this mindset. 


Coach Carroll recounted a pre-game happening with the offensive and defensive lines – something almost spiritual.  That energy was unleashed in the second half of the Stanford game and permeated every player on the team.  Coming back from that first half deficit demanded that the team believe they were truly capable of controlling their own destiny – that the talent was there; it was merely championing the mindset.  Marrying that with the talent they already had and, as Coach Carroll put it… "We're on the verge of becoming a monster."


 If Los Angeles is the land of "Ahs," then I guarantee you, the wizard behind the curtain, is Pete Carroll and come Saturday, he's going to write his name in the sky.


People, Trojan fans in particular, are all in a bunch over Coach Tedford and his Cal Bear team.  Personally, I am mystified. Not mortified. Not even miffed, but truly mystified.  I can't figure out what the Cal coach has done to earn his deification.  Is it that he took a bunch of rag tags and got ‘em to winning? That he's been associated with quarterbacks who took a snap in the NFL?  Has the top rated offense? Or, perhaps it's because he's got a 6 game winning streak going and is the only coach to beat the Trojans in the last 20 plus games? 


That's all really impressive stuff, but for me, when I really look all that is Golden with the Cal Bears, the shine isn't that bright.  No one's asking but I am going to give my uneducated opinion as to why I feel like USC is going to drop a house on those big bad Bears.


Reason number one and what I think is the greatest edge to USC:  Defense wins championships.  In the pros, we saw it with the Rams a few seasons back.  Great offense, no defense, couldn't get it done.


Ronnie Lott, a former All-American at USC and a Hall of Fame defensive back as a pro, played under Carroll in 1993 and 1994 with the New York Jets. Lott said Carroll's experience enables him to put offenses in "unpredictable situations. Some of it is inherent because of the way he studies and appreciates the game, and some of it is seeing so many offenses along the way," Lott said. "There are only so many things you can do with blocking schemes. There are a lot of things you can do to get people out of rhythm."


Now, statistically, Cal seems to field a very strong defensive team.  That is, until you look at their opponents, whose combined win/loss records to date are 4-11.  None of those teams featured the play-makers the Trojans bring to the game.  That said, Cal does return 8 starters to a defense that won a bowl game last year.  However, they gave up 49 points, winning by 3, to a team SC shut down in the second half in this season's opener. 


Cal closed out the 2003 season with 5 wins in its last 6 games.  Only one of their opponents had a winning record.  In their last two seasons, Cal finished just above .500, but because of routs against three poor ball clubs in ‘04, they find themselves in the national spotlight.  They are there because of how they performed, not who they performed against.  I get that, but let's look a little further into the match up.


Two:  In '03, SC opened Pac Ten play against Cal – a team, after a 7-5 season, no one took too seriously.  SC's mistake and even with a dominate second half, the Trojans simply ran out of time in regulation, then fumbled and kicked away the game in overtime.  Cal was just good enough to hold on.


In '04, the Trojans get Stanford to take Cal's place as launch pad to the regular season.  SC pulls the same shenanigans against Stanford it did with Cal, but this time the Trojans snap out of their doldrums in time to seal the victory.   Now this win is important to look at for a few reasons.  The first is the Trojan mindset – they took back the game, avoiding the opening league loss that plagued them the last two years.  Following those last two openers, SC went on to win, win and win again.  So right now, the Trojans are already in a better spot than they were last year or the year before.  What's even more important to me is the Trojans' offensive productivity. 


Point 3 and one I feel bodes extremely well for SC:  Going into the Cal game last year, the Trojans averaged just a little over 300 yards per game.  Seventy percent of those yards were in the air – thanks to Trojan tight ends and wide receivers.  By the end of the season – the National Championship season – the Trojan juggernaut was averaging 455 yards per game, with still around seventy percent coming from the passing game.  They had a quick strike offense and bend, don't break defense.  That offense kept SC's defense on the field too long at times, and nearly wore them down.


This season, heading into the Cal game, USC's offense is already averaging 450 yards per game.  What's impressive is that over 60 percent of that yardage is on the ground.  SC's air attack hasn't even gotten off the ground yet.  But you have to be aware that just getting a healthy tight end crew back for the Trojans will add yards to that total.  A ground game like the Trojans have fielded means ball control and against a team like Cal – an offensive minded team – that means keeping their strength, their only hope of scoring, off the field.  That means that when Cal does get the ball, they'll be in catch up mode against a rested, aggressive Trojan defense. 


At that point, Coach Carroll will do what he did in the second half against Stanford.  During the first half, Carroll all but admitted to spending too much energy on Stanford wideout Evan Moore.  This gave Cardinal quarterback, Trent Edwards, time to get his passes off and with that, was able to shred the Trojan secondary.  In the second half, Carroll put trust in his defensive backs to handle the receivers and let the front seven go for the quarterback.  By midway thru the third quarter, Edwards had taken so much punishment he had lost his desire to find the open man.  The game, save the final scores, was over.


Cal is better than Stanford, but for one half of football, no one has played as well as the Cardinal did against the Trojans, until SC took the game away.  The early scores for SC in that game caused a lull.  There will be no such lull against the Bears.  Quick note:  Rodgers, Cal's quarterback, like so many before and after him, was knocked out of the game last year.  He said he gets a bad taste in his mouth when he thinks about SC and not finishing the game.  He might bring some mouthwash because that bad taste is going to turn foul before the '04 version of SC vs. Cal is over with.


Point four and perhaps the most important:  Home field advantage.  As the article is entitled, "There is no place like home".  Someone pointed out that Tedford loves playing away more than he does at home.  We've all been to Cal stadium – strawberry fields or whatever it's called, so that comment is understandable.  But what was eluded to, was that Cal was better on the road, than at home – that they thrived in hostile environments.  Wrong.  Cal has a losing record on the road and they've never played in front of 90 thousand plus fans.  SC has and won the Orange, Rose and BCA classic. Now, I don't care who you are, playing in your own stadium, in front of your own fans, is the preferred choice. 


With home-field comes… noise: Out of 92 thousand screaming fans, at least 80 percent will belong to Troy.  It is imperative that, as fans, two things get done:  cardinal colors, not white, not grey, not tan – cardinal and… make it impossible for the Cal offense to hear, think and communicate.  Show the Trojan team how important this victory is by being the twelfth man.  It's imperative that by game's end, Tedford, Rodgers and the Bears feel like an SC house fell from the sky and landed square on their backs.

I've rambled, so thanks for listening.  Sum it up:  Defense gives SC, 7 points. SC's ground game keeps Cal off the field. And Home-field/SC fan advantage adds another 3 to SC's side of the scoreboard. 


This isn't a fairy tale and we don't need cardinal slippers to click together to make some silly fantasy real.  We're not the Bears, lost in the woods, searching for an identity.  We're USC - the best team in the land.  Like Coach Carroll preaches, this is just another game.  The team takes care of its job the way they've been coached to do and as fans, we support that effort thru thick and thin.  Remember those Cardiac Kids nearly killed a following on their way to a National Championship but those fans hung in.  It's our time to do the same. Wear your cardinal, make some noise and let's get it done.


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