Move Those Chains

The Trojans have played five games now, and in each game, they've come in as the number one team in the nation. Every opposing team, including Cal, has had one "make or break" game: the game against the Trojans. The facts are simple. USC has defended its number one ranking against every team's best effort.

As of Friday, October 8, the last Trojan football game that I hadn't watched in person or on TV was a little over a year before.  On that day, the University of Southern California Trojans were defeated by the upstart University of California Golden Bears.  Now, I tell you that to tell you this.  As of Saturday, October 9, I found myself in Chicago, as an observer of the Chicago marathon and a participant in my girlfriend's 21st birthday celebration.  While ABC was carrying the USC vs. Cal game, they were also showing the Ohio State vs. Wisconsin game in Big-10 markets.  Chicago is a Big-10 market.  Had I been in Chicago for any other reason than I was, it would have been beyond excruciating. 

            I missed it.  Cal.  Game Day.  23-17.  Crying Cal fans.  I missed it all.  And, being the sucker for symmetry that I am, seeing the attendance figure stuck at 90,008 was almost more than I could handle.

            Now, three important things happened this weekend.  USC moved to 5-0 on the year and got some revenge for last year's only loss.  I realized that I could actually miss watching a Trojan game and the world wouldn't implode, although I don't want to test that theory again for a long time.  And I went an Aaron Rodgers-like five for five in good birthday presents given.  For the purposes of my life, events two and three may ultimately prove to be more important.  But for the purposes of this column, I'll stick to the first one.

            With the win against Cal on Saturday, the Trojans now sit at a perfect 5-0 on the season and 2-0 in the Pac-10.  Cal proved to be a fierce opponent, but in the end, the poise and resolve of this Trojan team propelled USC to a victory.  Although, I'm not sure how many of the Bears realize that this game went into their loss column.  Everyone associated with Golden Bear athletics has been spouting things proclaiming how they dominated the game and statistically, we were no match for them.  And of course, my favorite: "We'd beat them nine times out of ten."

            Well guess what.  In the game of college football, you get to play each team on your schedule one time.  The Trojans have played five games now, and in each game, they've come in as the number one team in the nation.  Every opposing team, including Cal, has had one "make or break" game: the game against the Trojans.  The facts are simple.  USC has defended its number one ranking against every team's best effort.  No team on the Trojan schedule thus far has any right to claim that they are a better team.  The fact that Trev Alberts at ESPN or many of the Bears players have proclaimed themselves as the "better team" is utterly laughable.  The fact of the matter is that the Bears are a very good team, probably one of the five best in the nation, but don't try and spin it in any way to say they are as good as the Trojans.  A win is a win, and a loss, is second best. 

            Honestly, this game could have been a more lopsided Trojan victory.  The officiating, while not game-changing, was shaky throughout parts of the game.  Three pass interference calls, one that didn't end up hurting the Trojans and two that did, all went the way of the Golden Bears.  On the Trojans' first drive of the game, on a third and ten, a defensive back was all over the back, arm, shoulder and helmet of Chris McFoy as he went across the middle for a ball.  Luckily, the Trojans were saved on that drive by a catch turned in by Dwayne Jarrett that can only be described as "wow."  Matt Grootegoed drew a questionable flag for pass interference on one of the Bears' scoring drives when it appeared he hit the Cal receiver at the same time as the ball on a crucial third down play.  The Bears subsequently put the ball in the end zone for six points.  And finally, the interception Matt Leinart was charged with in the end zone should have an asterisk by it as McFoy was again wearing the Cal safety as a cape when the ball came within reach.  If these plays were called accurately, or at least consistently, they would have resulted in at least a 4 point swing and now we're looking at a double digit win for the Trojans.

            While 5-0 is the best this Trojan team could be at this point in the season, there are a few things that I'd like to see improve over the coming weeks. 

 

            Matt Leinart – Matt Leinart has been a good quarterback through the season's first five games.  However, he's been far from great.  The underlying thought here is that Leinart could and should be one of the top three quarterbacks in the nation, but so far he hasn't played up to expectations after an amazing season in 2003.  It's easy enough to say that he's been hindered by the lack of the explosive receivers he had at his disposal a year ago.  However, and if you can follow this, it's not the fact that Keary Colbert and Mike Williams are no longer there, it's that Matt Leinart is playing like they're no longer there.  He has yet to try and thread the ball into tight situations or throw the ball deep downfield against any sort of coverage.  It's as if the drops by the receivers at the beginning of the year prompted Leinart to believe that every one of his throws must be absolutely perfect.  This has led to numerous second guesses and pump fakes resulting in sacks.  In 2003, Leinart had no problem listening to his instincts to trust his receivers to make plays for him, but so far this year, he doesn't have the same trust.  During the past few games, the receivers have proven that they're ready to step up and catch the passes that Leinart is used to completing to big time receivers.  Hopefully Leinart begins to see this and stops checking off a partially covered Chris McFoy because he isn't wearing number one.  There is a reason these wide receivers call the Coliseum their home.  They are some of the best in the country and are looking to prove it.  Leinart needs to put the ball into the air and let them help him out. 

 

Norm Chow – Norm Chow has been an offensive coordinator for a long time; longer than I've been alive.  Telling Norm how to direct an offense would be like telling the Queen how to grip her teacup.  However, just because I've never worn a headset sponsored by Motorola doesn't mean I can't make observations.  In 2003, Norm Chow taunted opponents.  He kept the Trojan offense five steps and twenty points ahead of the opposing defense.  In 2004, it's almost as if he knows what will work, so he puts it away until we really need it.  I can't be the only one that sees LenDale White going off tackle for seven yards on every try.  With these running backs, I don't care if the offensive line is made up of a collection of Sorority presidents, we should never be faced with a three and out situation.  David Kirtman and Lee Webb out of the backfield had been useful weapons in moving the ball downfield and Kirtman saw only one pass in the game against Cal.  Norm Chow has a brilliant system, but so far in 2004, it seems as if the offense is functioning more around specific people than the specific system.  And after saying all of this, I am 100% convinced that Norm Chow is going to make me look like an idiot.  And I'll tell you what; I'm excited about that.

 

Pete Carroll – Like I've said before, I've coached exactly zero downs of division I college football, and in just over three years, Pete Carroll has taken these Trojans from Las Vegas Bowl losers to Orange Bowl optimists.  I'm not going to say what he's doing isn't working when it obviously is working to perfection so far this season.  However, Pete, I'm asking you, for my sake, for my aunt's lungs' sake, for my grandma's heart's sake, please stop letting games come down to last minute defensive stands.  I realize that's what you live for and it gets you fired up, but it makes us crazy.  You've been here for four years.  You don't know the pain of the Trojans constantly finding ways to lose games throughout a decade of futility.  I understand that these close games are exciting, and a late game defensive stand is a defensive coordinator's high; but let us get used to believing that the Trojans will constantly come out with a win before you put us through two in a row like that.

 

Linebackers – It seems that the linebackers have been playing a different game over the past few weeks than they were during the first three games of the season.  During games against Virginia Tech and Colorado State, the linebacking trio of Dallas Sartz, Lofa Tatupu recorded a total of four interceptions with each of them hauling in at least one pass from the opposing quarterback.  They were constantly stepping in front of wide receivers and tight ends to knock away or catch passes.  During the first two games against Pac-10 opponents, the linebackers have been content to sit behind tight ends and wide receivers running five and seven yards curl and out routes.  And as a result, during both of these games, the respective quarterbacks have completed so many consecutive passes that the balls began leaving fire trails.  It seems to me that when the linebackers were stepping in front of the receivers, opposing quarterbacks were struggling to get the ball to their targets.  I mean, tossing a ball over these athletic linebackers with enough speed to get it over their outstretched hands and enough touch to keep it under the radar of the incoming safeties seems like a daunting enough task.  I'm guessing most quarterbacks wouldn't be able to accomplish that with a lawn dart in practice, let alone a football with four defensive linemen charging.

 

Pressure on the Quarterback – The defensive front, with a healthy Jeff Schweiger, can be the most dominating force in college football.  It can better than Purdue's passing attack, have more impact than Oklahoma's running game and has more power than whatever river Reggie Bush was dipped in at birth.  However, even this defensive line can't be asked to apply pressure to a quarterback on every snap when he's allowed to drop back three quick steps and complete easy passes to wide-open receivers.  Through five games, opposing teams have completed exactly one "big play" against the Trojan defense.  This is good in that the defense is able to keep the other team out of the end zone more times than not; that of course being the fundamental goal in the game of football.  However, because the quarterback is able to complete these short passes with such regularity, the defense is out on the field for most of the game.  Towards the end of the season, that defensive stand on the nine yard line might go the other way if there's eleven sets of tired legs out there wearing cardinal and gold.  It seems as if any time Carroll brings more than the front four on a pass rush, good things happen.  An extra linebacker or defensive back have constantly led to sacks or incomplete passes.  I know it gets confusing to many fans when this tactic isn't employed more often.  And while I've constantly defended this "bend-but-don't-break" defense, this defense has proven itself to be opportunistic enough to force turnovers and capitalize on mistakes when given the chance.

 

The Cal game proved that the Trojans are still indeed at the head of the class in the Pac-10.  They've got the talent to make every remaining game on their schedule a blow out.  They just seem comfortable right now in piling up wins and not statistics.  I think this is fine as long as they still have the confidence to know that they can put up seven points whenever they want, or they can make a big play on defense and force a turnover on any snap.

At this point in the season, I don't know if there's been a 5-0, number one ranked team that has been so frustrating for its fans to watch.  It's almost comical to talk to people after the game as they treat these wins like blowout losses.  We must remember that the bulls-eye these Trojan players are wearing is getting bigger by the week. 

Also, apologies to Ryan Killeen can be sent to Heritage Hall or posted directly on the practice field doors.  And don't say things like, "Oh, that's just one game."  This was "the game."  It was the one game all year where it was important from the very beginning that he was perfect and not only did he nail all of his field goals and extra points, his shortest kickoff landed some five yards deep in the end zone.   

The Trojans now await a visit from the Sun Devils of Arizona State, and this has all the makings of a classic letdown game.  I actually wouldn't be surprised to see some experts start a trend of picking Arizona State to win the game, or at least keep it real close.  Some people will equate USC to the Ohio State teams of the past few years, getting wins during the last minutes of games with smoke and mirrors.  However, these Trojans are reminding me more and more of the New England Patriots up at the pro level.  Sooner or later you stop asking how they're winning all these games and you just acknowledge that there's depth, talent and something special going on.

Erik McKinney is a senior majoring in creative writing.  He can be reached at mckinno22@yahoo.com

 


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