Solid. It's amazing to use that adjective in describing the most recent versions of the Huskies. Then again, it's hard not to imagine using anything less.
Under Don James, the University of Washington put Seattle on the map. They built a house of pain, and supplied it with a stunning backdrop of a sailboats mooring on a deep blue sea. Then they sold that house out – game after game, Husky Stadium quickly became the Lambeau of the West with season tickets only available if grandpa willed them to you.
Putting players in the NFL, winning national championships, setting all-time winning records…beyond USC, the "Dub" was Pac Ten football. Sure, teams like the Bruins attempted to break the glass ceiling set by the Trojans and then nearly copied by the Huskies but they never really got close. Oregon's Phil "Suge' Daddy" Knight tried to buy his alma mater's way in but truth is no matter how much money you throw at something, "if you ain't for real then you ain't the deal."
During James' tenure, when Washington came to town you knew you were in for a game – talent, ready to die for their colors was going to be on both sides of the field. And when you traveled north, you were lucky to bring everybody home.
Check the names on the backs of their purple jerseys and you'd see these weren't inner-city sprinters brought in from Miami that were putting tags on the enemy's toes, these were more like axe wielding Norsemen. Names you could barely pronounce born on some island distant in the San Juans. The sons of loggers and deep sea fishermen – tough s.o.b.s from the day they were yanked from their mothers' wombs. Solid, hell that was used to describe their women, hardly the players themselves.
Then, one day, the wheels came off the Husky Chuck Wagon. An NCAA investigation turned purple to a soft shade of lavender and "The Dub" went dumb. It's never been the same since. Sure, there have been moments, victories here and there but nothing like the ‘90's – nothing like the past.
I won't even say the name… Neuheisel, who almost brought the dogs back then took them out to a meadow and put a bullet in their head with his off-field antics. No, it's been a painful decade for UW fans.
Now, with Ty Willingham as the new skipper – a guy who doesn't play guitar or take his charges skiing but instead methodically retrains these dogs through discipline and reward, the Huskies are on a roll. At 4-1 they come to Los Angeles, teeth bared, ready to start dog fight. They smell blood, fresh from the Trojans' last two scrapes and think the old horse can finally be taken down.
For SC and Pete Carroll, it's going to take more than a rap on the mutt's nose to get him to behave. It's going to require a complete game – not five minutes on defense here, or two drives on offense there. For the Trojans, who are finally home following two back-to-back road games, it's time to mark their territory – being the Coliseum, a place of more consecutive victories in two years than the total number of UW wins in five - and chase the Huskies off like a pack of strays.
In last week's game, against Washington State, it was a bend don't break philosophy that "preserved" victory for the Trojans. The Cougars proved to be a talented, well coached team. The Huskies think they're better – of course they've always thought they were better than their lowly neighbors.
4-1 might be worthy of that confidence. Having a senior quarterback in Isaiah Stanback – a kid with Michael Vick-type speed and just as good an arm, could also provide that "false" sense of security, too. I say "false" because it seems like everyone "thinks" this is the year they beat USC – that is until the fourth quarter rolls around. Then just getting out of town looks good, much less grand plans of exposing the reigning Pac Ten champs in their house.
From Cal's "92,000 disappointed fans" to Notre Dame's missing greenskeepers, nobody has gotten it done against USC. It took a crazy lateral and someone to pull the plug on the replay monitors to get Texas their win and through all that it proved one thing - you've got to play a perfect game plus get a little help to topple Troy.
"Perfection plus help" should be Ty's game mantra – that, and a whole lot of bite in the dog, if he hopes to get out of the Coliseum with a victory.
Sure, I'm impressed with Isaiah's athleticism. He's finally become a quarterback instead of a kid with a dancer's feet and a rockstar's mane. The question is, how good a qb does he have to be to beat SC. The answer: a lot better than he's ever been before and that's where this game begins and ends. The kid is known for making mistakes – little ones, here, there and throughout games. This will be the biggest game of his career and it's hard to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear – oh sorry, that was Arkansas.
If Stanback isn't superb then SC puts the dog down. It's that simple. Keeping it that simple by corralling this 10.4 high hurdler will be Carroll and his Defensive Coordinator's ultimate challenge. To achieve it, I am looking for a variation in the Trojan lineup along the front seven. Sure, Sedrick Ellis is back, which could mean the world to the Trojans in applying pressure along the interior of the scrum – as well as spelling Fili et al.
More importantly to me, however, is how the Trojans are able to maintain the periphery of the line and that's where I think SC might make some personnel adjustments via Jeff Schweiger and Kyle Moore – not on a constant basis but I expect to see them play more this week than in games past.
In the 2006 Rosebowl the Trojans lost containment of mobile Vince Young. Rucker and his defensive line counterparts got sucked inside when Young went free-lance. Stanback, who is not disciplined enough to stay with his assignment, will because of pressure from the Trojans front seven, break from the pocket to make most his plays. His speed will prove deadly, unless SC can get to him before he gets out in space.
To do this will require fresh legs and a variety of pass rushes. Because of that, it seems logical that a more traditional 4-3 alignment will be fielded by Holt, putting more speed on the ends and leaning heavily on the pursuit skills of his extremely athletic linebackers. If speed kills, then SC will deliver a shot to the heart of Isaiah Stanback and the Washington Huskies. Make that a couple shots, and personally I've yet to see a quarterback not tap out after a few blows to the body by the boys in Cardinal and Gold.
Of course the best defense is a great offense – as Pete Carroll exhibited a week ago Monday when he came out with loads of offensive stats for the media to feast on. He wanted everyone to know that, to date, this version of the USC Trojans is more prolific than their 2003 counterparts – a team considered a near identical twin to this current Trojan squad.
Yes, the numbers were impressive all the way down the line to one category – scoring. That's when the two had a distinct separation. That lack of scoring has been cause for concern among Trojan faithful. And last week against WSU, when it seemed like the Trojans were ready to create some serious distance between themselves and their competition, things got a little too close for comfort.
With just a bit over a minute left, the Cougars came within 30 yards of ending the Trojans' roll. The party was almost over before it began but "Victory" the aptly named defensive formation put in play for deep pass protect was brought out and executed to near perfection – Mays was out of position but who's quibbling, he made the interception and the Trojans got out of Pullman, scalps in tact.
Close calls against average teams are not what Trojan fans have come to expect. The talent level in D-1 football is such that on any given day, any given top ranked team can be beat by their ugly step-brothers. That means to win games, a team must fight from start to finish.
I think the Trojans learned this lesson last Saturday – much like they did a few years back when the outcome, against Cal, wasn't quite as palatable as the Coug finish.
SC cannot rely so heavily on their very young defense that they forget to put points up on offense. Possession is not enough – scoring is required and scoring more than 30 a mandate if winning is to be enjoyed before then final seconds tick away. Because plays are down, due to the timeclock, teams need to strike while they've got the ball – and every time they've got the ball.
Carroll needs to get his offense on track right out of the gate, not two quarters into it. Lane Kiffin, his offensive coordinator needs to unleash all the horses, not just one – which earned SC another Heisman last season but might too have cost them a national championship.
There is no "star" on SC's team but a collection of them. Their talents need to be utilized to the extent that opposing defenses don't know which way to turn – kept on their heals as the saying goes. SC's offense hasn't really put a defense on its heals since Oklahoma and the Orange Bowl.
So as much as this is a coming home party for the Trojans, it also needs to be a coming out party for the SC offense. Stats are great but if you're not scoring you are greatly reducing your odds for continued success against well coached, talented teams.
Now, with the above said, do not expect to see many 40+ games from your USC Trojans. That is not Pete Carroll ball. He runs an efficient, NFL style, offense - one that produces what it takes to win but not a whole lot more.
College coaches, like Steve Spurrier with his Fun and Gun offense, along with others like putting the pedal to the metal and destroying opponents. Pete doesn't do that. If he's got a comfortable lead late in the third quarter, don't expect much more scoring – unless a runner breaks free. Two scores seems to be his magic number. If he can maintain that distance between his boys and the competition then he's more than happy.
What makes that hard, as a fan, is watching the end of regulation at WSU and thinking we're out of control, on the verge of collapse, when in actuality it's the exact opposite. Pete's got the game in hand and he's letting the opponent run out of gas and time.
Lane Kiffin, his Offensive Coordinator, is calling the plays they have developed to maintain an effective effort to victory – not to titillate the fans. It's all about the W, not about the score. Will they develop the offense's productivity – yes, as the opportunity presents itself.
When you consider how incredibly young this team is, in yet, how efficient the team is producing its victories, and it's incredibly impressive. It's also a system – not just a "score as much as you can" gameplan. It makes teams think SC is more mortal than reality. It makes them think the Trojans are beatable and because of that, fans see the quotes from other teams' players and wonder what's going wrong. The answer: nothing. This is Pete Carroll football. It's his team and this is all by design. So get used to it, Trojan fans. The hard part is when this plan is executed close to the vest against a good team, gets things too close for comfort ala Notre Dame of 2005.
Washington is good enough to exercise this principle to the tenth degree and show USC that truly the dog's got a lot more than just bark – it's got bite.
So, with that, the best defense Pete can field will be a fully functioning offense. If SC can field a more complete version of the "Trojan" offense, while providing an improved pass rush, forcing Stanback to throw on the run – which means more mishaps than success, then the game will be over and the dog… will be daggummed down.
If they don't and insist that there's always enough time to score later in the game, and their defense is on the field too much, then it's going to be a dog-fight to the finish – one the Trojans will most probably win but one that shouldn't ever come close to happening in the first place.
Washington has averaged over 20 points in every game this season. So have the Trojans. The difference is that SC is leading the Pac Ten in defensive scoring and Washington… is not.
Look for the Trojans to keep the Huskies just below 20 while putting up five scores themselves, mostly through the air – yes, SC throws the dog a bone - just not the one the Huskies had hoped. Booty should have time, and enough targets, despite injury to spread the ball out. Also look for our own Washington, Chauncy that is, to see a nice mix of runs with his new backfield counterpart, Emmanuel Moody. I don't expect more than 400 yards total, because of the clock, but I do expect more scoring. SC wears down the Huskies in the 2nd half and Ty pulls his sled out of the race by middle 4th with the hopes of, once again, just getting on the bus and heading for home.
USC 38 UW 17