So what really went on tonight and what does it mean? First, I think the first half of the game pointed out a couple of important concepts. First, no matter how good a coaching staff is, and no matter how talented and focused a team tries to be, it is unlikely that a team can be sky high and on its game all the time. After just completing a sweep of three previously undefeated teams, namely Stanford, Cal and ASU, the Trojans were due for a letdown. Pete Carroll and staff did everything possible to avoid it, but the offense was simply off its game for the most part in the first half. Many fans have become spoiled and we seem to expect Matt Leinart to be nearly perfect, especially when he has time. Such was not the case tonight, especially in the first half. This time, Matt was simply human. Many, if not most quarterbacks across the nation would be thrilled with the following stats; 24 for 43 for 217 yards and 2TDs with only one interception. Those were Matt's numbers tonight, yet he never seemed really comfortable out there. In this game, he missed some open receivers, he got sacked a number of times and he just did not look like he was totally "into it" whatever that really means. This game also showed that although talent usually wins out in the end so long as it is associated with a reasonable effort, emotion and heart are still very important and they can go a long way towards achieving one's goals in a football game. The Washington Huskie Defense seemed to play way over its head in the first half and that unit did its very best to keep the game from getting out of hand very early . The outmanned Huskies seemed to just want it more in the first half, but they received no help from their Offense and they eventually just wore down.
As I write an opinion each week, it is becoming increasingly obvious that this team simply finds ways to win no matter what. Tonight, despite the fact that the USC offense was not awesome, the defensive effort was a true masterpiece and it was fun to watch. The Huskie offense managed to net only 113 yards for the total game and the Huskies were shut out for the first time since 1981. No matter what Washington tried to do, they failed. The USC defense was focused, fast, quick, deep and simply too much for Washington. A truly masterful option team might be able to give SC a run for its money, but not this Washington team. One almost felt sorry for Isaiah Stanback as he tried to run the option against this athletic group of Trojans. Please note that I said almost. For those USC fans with pretty good memories and who are old enough to remember, it was not that long ago that the National Champion Huskies really slaughtered the Trojans up in Seattle. That Huskie Defense, led by Steve Entman and D'Marco Farr repeatedly clobbered one Todd Marinovich and they showed no mercy whatsoever. Thus, as the saying goes, Payback is a -----! You get the message. Anyway, this SC defense is beginning to remind me of that Huskie Unit, at least in terms of providing dominating performances. Lest we forget, this defense has recently held the high scoring California Bears to a sesason low 17 points, they shutdown ASU and held them to 7 points and now they blanked the Huskies. Some may disagree, but even without Kenechi Udeze and Will Poole, this defense seems to be a better unit than last year's edition. If statistics mean anything, they also support my assertion.
I realize that I have implied that the offense was less than dominating tonight and I really believe that is an accurate description. Yet, when all was said and done, the Trojans ended up with 453 yards which is hardly an insignificant number. As one reveiws the actual game, it is almost startling to realize that 13 different recievers caught passes from either Matt Leinart or Matt Cassell and the Trojans gained some 256 yards through the air. Similarly, the Trojans managed 197 yards on the ground. So how does this translate into a less than stellar offensive performance and have my expectations (as well as those of many others) simply become so absurd that nothing short of perfection will suffice?? I guess each reader can judge for himself. Simply put, the relatively unimpressive performance in the first half seemed to cloud the total picture and after watching a nearly perfect offensive display in the first half against a talented ASU team, I have to believe some expectations have, in fact, become unrealistic. Obviously, by the end of this game, the Trojans had put things together and they were manhandling the Huskies and this game was never really in doubt. Uncharacteristically, SC turned the ball over twice, but they caused three Washington turnovers so in the end, SC still won the battle with a net result of plus one.
How about the offensive line? At times, the line again looked less than dominating and they had some trouble handling pressure, at least early on. To be fair, in this game, sometimes it appeared that Matt Leinart simply held on to the ball too long and he could not pick up his recievers in time or he did not scramble out of trouble as well as he has at other times. On the other hand, when SC resorted to what the announcers called zone blocks to allow LenDale to pick his hole and go, they did look quite effective. It was also somewhat worrisome when John Drake went out with some type of foot-ankle injury and he was seen being taken away on a cart. The first replacement for Drake at left guard was Jeff Byers. I tried to watch closely, and even when John was out and Jeff was in, the Oline did not seem to lose any obvious effectiveness. Byers looks much much smaller than JD, but he also looks like he has quicker feet and he seems to use speed and technique to compensate for his lack of size. I am still not sure how big Jeff really is, but he looks noticeably smaller than most of the other Offensive Linemen that SC had out there. It was also interesting to note that as the game progressed further, Jeff Byers moved over to center and Travis Watkins came in and took over at left guard. Late in the game it was nice to see that the second string offensive line was able to generate some offense against the Huskie defense, albeit a tired Huskie Defense.
There were a couple of other interesting facets of this game worth mentioning. I could not help but wonder why in the world Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush were still in the game early in the fourth quarter with SC up by a score of 31-0. I realize that there are some who might question how anyone would dare question anything about the game management of a coaching staff as fine as SC's, but what the heck?? I still think the risk of injury outweighed any potential benefit of having Reggie, Matt and even LenDale in the game when the outcome was not in doubt. I also figured that the subs also go hard in practice and they could use any and all game day experience that they can get. As it is, many subs got very valuable playing minutes for most of the third quarter and it is obvious that this is one talented team. Just imagine how some of the opponents feel when they think to themselves, ah great Grootegoed is out of the game! Well, boy are they in for a huge surprise. Out went Matt and in came a guy who is bigger, faster and more athletic-Keith Rivers. Out went Tatupu and in came a bigger guy in Osacr Lua. Out went Dallas Sartz and in came the human destroyer-Thomas Williams, He hit some guy so hard I thought the Huskie was split in two. I also could not help but note that Terrell Thomas got some pretty good minutes and for a while, the corners of the future, namely TT (Terrell Thomas) and Eric Wright were in there at the same time. They actually looked quite effective as a cornerback duo. Similarly Josh Pinkard got some minutes and he is another very talented kid that receivers and runners will learn to avoid whenever possible. I also think that it is worth mentioning that as a group, the USC receivers continue to improve and impress. They have relatively few drops and they are making some really pretty catches. It was so nice to see Jason Mitchell get wide open for the first touchdown of his Trojan Career and oh how sweet it is to see Fred Davis and John Walker get into the picture. Watching that freight train also known as Dominique Byrd is also a treat that never gets tiring.
The special teams were once again a real plus. Although Killeen missed a long field goal, he hit another and he did not allow any kick off returns of note. He simply booms the ball like few I have seen before. Tom Malone punted 3 times for a 48.3 yard average and the SC punt cover teams have not allowed any long returns as of late. Meanwhile, SC did a pretty good job fielding punts and they did not turn the ball over on any kicks. Once again Killeen made all his extra points and one would have to look back some distance to see SC teams special team functioning on a consistently higher level than these units.
USC is now 7 and 0 and the Trojans hit the road for two big tests. Next up is Washington State. On paper, this should be a Trojan Victory, especially since the Cougars are without their starting quarterback. However, as we all know, winning games up there in Pullman has not been easy as of late and that is one game that can be greatly affected by rain and the weather in general. Oh how well I remember a game up there when it was very cold and very wet and rainy on a day that it was anything but fun to play those guys. When playing there the weather and the turf can be as much of a factor as the opposing team itself. The somewhat lackluster first half offensive performance will no doubt make Pete Carroll and staff's job a bit easier this week. I think it will now be all that much easier to get the kids' attention. This team is still in position to do something very special indeed. The talent is in place, but there can be no major letdowns and everything has to fall into place. At this time I am not sure how badly John Drake might be hurting. Based on what happened last season when he was lost, he is not an easy guy to replace, but as at any other position, if this kid is not able to play, another talented Trojan will simply have to step up to the plate. After all, that is the Trojan Way.