Did anyone out there count how many times the announcers alluded to style points during Saturday's game? I lost count after 35. Although, it was tough to follow anything uttered by either announcer when it was constantly preceded by, "With the initial BCS standing set to be released in fewer than 24 hours…"
I mean, there is no possible way that I could care less about the initial BCS standings. And furthermore, am I the only one who realizes that style points have absolutely no bearing on the final standings?
Look, it's as simple as this. After Saturday night, seven teams were left with undefeated records and a shot at playing in the BCS National Championship Game. Now, the first thing that happens when people hear that is they automatically start ranting about who should be left out and who has a tougher conference and who plays which teams on the road in bad weather after a short rest and a hard midterm. It's completely ridiculous.
This season, especially for the Trojans, everything is set up to break exactly right. Provided, of course, that USC stays unbeaten. With a loss, anywhere along the remaining schedule, the Trojans have no shot at the Championship game. It's that simple. If they win out, however, they have no shot at not being in the Championship game.
Of the remaining undefeated teams, Michigan and/or Ohio State won't be there in the end, and at least two of the West Virginia, Louisville, Rutgers triumvirate will be knocked off. Boise State is the seventh of the undefeateds, but, unless they are the only remaining undefeated team, they won't be invited to the finale. And even if they are the lone team with an unblemished record, they still might have a hard time getting in. All of that means that at the end of the season, there can only possibly be four undefeated teams
By the end of the season, the Trojans will have played the toughest schedule in the nation. SEC teams hoping to play the conference strength game have taken a hit with how terrible Georgia has been this season, and the two top-tier Big-10 teams have been dealt a similar blow with Iowa's struggles. Such a huge deal was made out of Florida's four game gauntlet of Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Georgia. Really? The Alabama team that beat Vanderbilt and Mississippi by three points each? And I won't even bring up Vanderbilt in relation to Georgia. That was done on Saturday.
None of this is to say that Florida doesn't play a strong schedule or in a strong conference, but it is to say that no one-loss team deserves to be in the Championship Game over an undefeated team from a BCS conference, no matter how many close games that undefeated team played. If they keep winning, the computers will keep loving the Trojans.
Please don't take this as a Tommy Tuberville-esque rant about schedule strength and BCS shutouts when in fact, it's the exact opposite. As a Trojan fan, there is absolutely no reason to worry about Michigan moving to number two in the newest AP Poll (especially since the AP Poll is as relevant as the Nielsen Ratings in the BCS formula). USC is in a position where they absolutely control their own destiny. The coaches' poll (one of the components of the BCS formula) looks only at wins and preseason rankings. None of the coaches take into effect margin of victory or how impressive a team looks. Which means, USC is number two in that poll until they lose. The reality is that the Trojans will more than likely lose a game or two over the next six. I don't think many people can watch these games and convince themselves that USC is head and shoulders better than any team they will play in late November. But, it's also true that no college football team should be 51-2 over their last 53 games.
And so, while the Trojans probably didn't envision taking three consecutive single-digit wins with them into this bye week, they certainly won't be sitting in the Kiss and Cry Zone waiting on Technical marks from the Russian judge. Because after Saturday, there are only two numbers that matter: 6 and 0.
Lay Off the Pre-Game Spread:
I've said before that the only thing I feel comfortable critiquing, as a fan, about the Trojan football team is their intensity and their desire during the course of a game. If a guy is hit hard and fumbles the ball stretching for a first down or a defender is going all out and accidentally grabs a facemask, what am I going to complain about? That I could do it better? I couldn't play football half as physically as these guys think about playing football. But what I do expect is that every time every player pulls that cardinal or white jersey over his pads, he gives everything he has on every single play. If you are going to represent the University of Southern California, you'd better do it in a way that brings pride to everyone associated with you and the university.
(Obviously, after patrolling home game tailgates and Internet message boards, I'm aware that not everyone thinks the same way I do.)
On Saturday, I didn't see sense of pride and that hunger to be the best from the Men of Troy. After springing to a three-touchdown lead, nearly the entire team fell asleep. There was no urgency and it seemed as if quite a few guys didn't show up ready to play.
I will say that Chauncey Washington came to play. Keith Rivers came to play as well. Thomas Williams brought enough equipment for everyone to play when he lined up at fullback for Washington's fourth-quarter touchdown run. But, for the most part, not enough guys were ready to go against Arizona State.
Now, as someone who covers the team as a writer, I will say that there are obviously some things that need to be worked on from a technical point of view.
John David Booty is an absolutely great quarterback, even though not a single member of the national media knows his name. Apparently, for a short time, Arizona State was playing against JJ Booty, unbeknownst to anyone on the Trojan sidelines. But, as a quarterback, Booty has shown the ability to do a lot of things very well. He has very good pocket presence, the arm strength to make every throw needed of a quarterback and the accuracy to hit his receivers in stride, whether they're down the field or coming out of the backfield. What he must work on, however, is his touch on short third-down passes. On short conversion plays, the Trojans have shown time and again that they will run three-yard routes in order to pick up first downs. The problem comes when Booty treats those throws like 25-yard out routes that need to zip through a concrete wall and puncture the lung of the receiver on the other side. Short passes that shot through receivers' hands cost the Trojans at least three times on Saturday. This problem is obviously correctable and the solution will come with time and experience.
Defensively, arguably no player is as important as the middle linebacker. While Rey Maualuga has played fairly well this season, he is nowhere close to being as dominant as he can possibly be. Maualuga is able to make plays that other linebackers can't simply because of his athletic ability. He can beat offensive linemen to a spot or wrap a ball carrier up in the backfield because he is fast, aggressive and a sure tackler. But, oftentimes he is too concerned with making the play himself. There were several instances on Saturday, as well as in each game this season, where Maualuga tried to run around a blocker in order to make a tackle instead of taking on the blocker and gumming up the play. When Maualuga does this, he either allows a blocker to simply usher him out of the way, or he just runs himself out of the play completely. I realize that he's going to continue to play instinctually, but occasionally I'd like to see him blow up a lead blocker in the hole, forcing the running back to stop or change direction into the path of another defender, rather than guess which way the back will go and open the hole further.
Also, you have to assume that Lawrence Jackson is going to show up at some point. After injuring his groin during the very first day of fall camp, Jackson hasn't looked right this season. Whether the problem is that his conditioning isn't there yet or the Trojans' defensive alignments aren't working for him or there is some other thing holding him back, a player of his talent shouldn't be held in check the way he has been. In fact, I can't really recall a single play this season where Jackson stood out. On Saturday, he had a chance to chase Rudy Carpenter down from behind and failed to finish the job. If there is still some lingering injury from fall practice, then that is obviously the root of the problem, but the Trojans certainly aren't getting the kind of production they'd like out of a guy who they were counting on a lot this season.
Oh To Be Young Again:
The Trojans' youth has been blamed in numerous ways when it comes to the recent run of close wins. From inexperience in big moments to fragile psyches to physical shortcomings, there is no arguing the fact that the Trojans' young players weren't and aren't ready to step into the roles vacated by some of the best talent college football has ever seen.
Due to that youth, there have been fumbles and missed assignments over the first half of the season. But there have also been wins.
The biggest thing with this team that often gets overlooked is the fact that young teams play to their competition. Whether it's up or down, a young team will play the game they are presented. If the opposition is playing a slow, methodical game, the young team will fall into the same plodding pattern. If the game is quick, they will respond. What this team lacks and what Trojan teams of the past four years had is the ability to put teams away by playing consistently for four quarters. Those teams all had a rhythm to their games. This team lacks that rhythm because they have no idea what their rhythm is yet. And in fact, they might go the entire year without finding it.
Sure, USC fell behind during the regular season last year, but it was only when they caught an early bad break or their opponent came out flying. After that, for the most part, they fell into a groove and simply ran away from the other team. This year, the Trojans don't have the knowledge that they can put teams away. Except for Arkansas (and I think at this point we have to assume that game was an anomaly), the Trojans have played only as well as they've had to, not as well as they can.
The good news is that if I'm right about any of this, the Trojans will step up their game against the likes of Oregon, Cal and Notre Dame, because that's what those games will call for.
Here's To You, Mr. Washington:
The 2006 Trojans are slowly becoming Chauncey Washington's team. After playing through injuries for the season's first handful of games, Washington showed that he is rounding into form against Arizona State. Now, with a week off, he should be up to full speed for the remainder of the season.
Washington is one of those guys who can run the ball 30 times in a game if need be, and with the way the game was shaping up in the fourth quarter, it needed be.
But beyond that, he gives John David Booty a security blanket in the backfield, knowing that he no longer needs to throw for every single 3rd-and-four conversion. Washington can run effectively inside and outside as well as catch the ball out of the backfield. He isn't going to break many 80-yard runs, but he gives you extra yards on every single carry. There has been a lot of talk about how this offense isn't as explosive as the one that the Trojans presented during the last couple years; but if USC is going to move to an offense that gets a lead and then melts the clock, they couldn't ask for a better back than Washington.
Good Idea, Bad Idea:
There were two absolutely wonderful things that occurred on Saturday.
The first was Patrick Turner's block during C.J. Gable's touchdown run. Sure, there were more spectacular plays and plays that resulted in more yards gained, but Turner's block absolutely crushed the entire left side of the Sun Devils' defensive line. With Chris McFoy out, Turner becomes the Trojans' best blocking receiver and it's great to see him flourishing in that role.
The other instance happened just after John David Booty threw the interception that was returned for a touchdown. After the throw, Booty and Jarrett (his "intended" receiver) went to the sideline and waited for their turn to head out to the field again. There was no finger pointing, no showing up of the other player, no public grousing, no nothing. It was simply two players who understood the situation and were willing to immediately move on. It was altogether refreshing and expected, coming from two Trojans.
In Alabama's win over Mississippi, the Crimson Tide quarterback missed a wide open receiver on a fourth down play mid-game and was screamed at by his fullback. Terrell Owens and Antonio Bryant have become poster boys for showing up their quarterback. But Dwayne Jarrett, one of the true veterans on the Trojans as well as someone whose stats probably aren't what they could be with a more experienced quarterback, was more than willing to accept the play as partly his fault and learn from it for next time.
There were also two things that happened that weren't so positive.
The first was simple, easily correctable and definitely goes back to the point about this team playing the game they are presented. Up 21-7, with the ball and with the ability to start running away from the Sun Devils, the Trojans embarked on one of the worst third quarter performances I've ever seen. General Custer's squad was more successful than the Trojans during those 15 minutes. I haven't checked the stats yet, but I'm pretty sure they had something like –200 yards and seven turnovers, while giving up 42 points and the land grant to the Health Science campus. Once the Trojans regrouped, however, they were able to fight back and take the lead, but it will be interesting to see if they learn how to play with a big lead during the next several weeks.
The second thing was far more egregious.
After returning a kick along the Arizona State sideline, C.J. Gable was tackled into the bench and remained there for several minutes, involved in some sort of altercation. Pete Carroll was shown muttering, "Get out of there. Get out of there."
Get out of there is right. It was downright embarrassing. I don't care how emotionally charged you are or what they say to you when you're along the sideline; you don't ever extend a play to that degree. There is no need to start pushing a shoving, especially when you're surrounded by the other team. A line exists between playing physically and just being stupid.
Miami and Florida International University crossed that line on Saturday night. Obviously, CJ Gable's little skirmish was a molehill compared to the Orange Bowl's Mt. Everest, but it only takes a couple of guys to turn something little into something far more ugly. Hopefully, Pete Carroll spoke with Gable and that sort of thing won't happen again. There is absolutely no place for it, no matter how small it may seem.
I'd Like To Bye A Win:
The Trojans are 6-0 and heading into their second bye week of the season. I could list 112 teams who would rather be in USC's shoes right now. In fact, knowing how cold it's been in the Midwest recently, I might be able to make that 114.
The people who are complaining about the way this team is winning remind me of Randy Quaid's character in Major League II, screaming, "You're all garbage, all of ya!" Back up the truck, back it up!" at a team ranked second in the country.
I can't imagine being someone who would enjoy saying, "I told you so!" after the Trojans lose a game, but I guess it takes all kinds. For me, I'll continue to celebrate ugly wins and pretty wins the same way: With nothing but support for this USC team.
Erik McKinney is a staff writer for WeAreSC.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.