Slippery When Wet

If the Trojans' tough sledding got started last week in a shutout performance, that looked harder than it was, against the University of Washington Huskies, then a sure footed march to the finish of the campaign begins this Saturday, when USC hits the road to take on Washington State.

If the Trojans' tough sledding got started last week in a shutout performance, that looked harder than it was, against the University of Washington Huskies, then a sure footed march to the finish of the campaign begins this Saturday, when USC hits the road to take on Washington State.

        Nevermind that the last visit to the Palouse for the National Champion Trojans didn't come off as planned. Nevermind that the boys in Cardinal and Gold are dinged up at key positions and still yawning after the nap they took against last week's opponent. Nevermind that USC goes on the road, leaving their legions of fans behind in the warm Southern California climate, for the freezing rains of the great Northwest. Nevermind that, as Trojan coach Pete Carroll put it, this is "the beginning of the finish," and nevermind that the Trojans should beat the Washington State Cougars by a might margin… Nevermind, because none of it matters. For When USC takes the field Saturday, once again the toughest opponent they will face is… themselves.

        It's not hard picking USC to win every weekend. They are clearly the better coached team in every game they go into – and yes, fans, that means Cal with Coach Tedford, too. The Trojan coaching staff has done what every other coach seems to have termed "impossible". Week in and week out, Pete Carroll and his assistants have found the way to win. With only two losses coming in the last two seasons, and none this season, USC has the second longest win streak in the nation. The streak should and will, most probably, continue this weekend but the road ahead could prove a little – slippery when wet.

        Bill Doba took over a Cougar team abandoned by Coach Price for greener pastures in Alabama. The green for Price was one dollar bills at a strip joint and that was the last money he saw until UTEP signed him to a multi-year coaching contract. From Pullman to El Paso via Alabama. It appears escaping the Palouse, at any cost, is money well spent. For Doba, there's no place like home. I don't know what that says about the Cougar's head coach but I do know he still has some players left over from the Mike Price regime.

        Good Will hunting. Will Derting, one of the Pac's leading tacklers and best linebackers. If he were in Cardinal and Gold, Trojan fans would love him the way they do their own gridiron hero, Matt Grootegoed. While not exactly the same, physically, it would be hard to pick these two apart on the field. Derting, like Grootegoed, has a nose for the ball. He leads his team in tackles, year in and out and is the emotional glue on a defense that has kept the Cougars in every game this season.

        This season, for the Cougars, has not gone as well as recent seasons passed. Injuries have played a key role in some early losses and those injuries will be just as key for the remainder of the year.

        No Swogger, no swagger. Doba's offense is a tight, timing type offense that lives off the quick strike. It requires a trigger man and three games into the season, that gunslinger was shot off his horse. Swogger had waited his turn, learned the system, impressed many last year at times and most importantly, proved this year – he was the Cougar's man. The emotional counterpart to Derting's on defense, Swogger gave the Cougars what they needed – swagger and as soon as he went down, so did Washington State. This weekend they face the number one team in the nation and the losses are piling up high enough, that the season is on the Brink – Alex Brink, that is.

        Second year man, Alex Brink has been given the whip and chair to keep the Cougars in line, yet fighting mad. The problem is Cougars are tame compared to the lions on the other side of the ball in Trojan uniforms.

The USC defense is the difference maker – in this contest and everyone the Trojans have been in this year. Lead by seniors Cody, Patterson, Groots and Leach, these Trojans lead in nearly every category a defense can lead in. They are better in all aspects from their 2003 counterpart and only seem to improving on that margin. And in the slip and slide, frost covered world of Pullman Washington, they are the Trojans' best chance at victory.

Chance might sound silly, but Pullman is no easy place to play and if the first half offensive nap the Trojans took against the Huskies, last week is any indicator, every game is going to require USC not beat themselves, much less lose to a lesser opponent. Granted, the Cougars aren't world beaters but they are a far better team than their Washington neighbors and it will take a solid game for USC to get out of that hellhole victorious.

The keys this week, in an environment where ball control is vital, would seem to me to go back to some of the players that got the Trojans thru the last two outstanding seasons. With running back Lendale White less than 100 percent, it would make sense to get former starting back Herschel Dennis more into the mix. If he doesn't see playing time then there is some writing on the wall that needs to be recognized. Dennis is still USC's best all-around back, in that he knows his assignments and performs them to near perfection. He also has heart to go with the talent and football smarts that made him last year's leading rusher. He could be a major asset to SC's run for an undisputed National Championship in '04, if for no other reason than to help the offense stay healthy until that big game.

The other player that needs to get the ball more in a slip-and-slide environment like the Palouse, is tight end Alex Holmes. Holmes has the best hands on the team and while he may not be as "pretty" a runner as Byrd, Holmes gets the first down and more, every time he touches the ball. Touching the ball this season is something Alex has done less of than any season before. This has nothing to do with his talent, but with the way Chow has set the offense and how he has aligned Byrd, putting him in more of an "F" back slot. This leaves Holmes to shore up an inexperienced line and get the occasional "save me" dumps from quarterback Leinart. Holmes deserves more and the team needs his talents to keep drives alive for the remainder of the year.

In any case, like I said, it isn't hard to pick SC as the winner this weekend. The toughest opponent will be themselves and to survive this game and every one coming between now and January, the Trojan coaches need to utilize their full compliment of talented players, keep opponents guessing and let the seniors, that tough defense and the Trojan faithful lead the way.

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