As far as the Beavers go, the biggest surprises to me were the play of Matt Moore and the fact that we allowed Clinton Polk to rush for 100 yards. It shouldn't be too much of a surprise to see Moore play well, he is actually a quarterback I enjoyed watching play at Hart HS because of his athleticism and his competitiveness. I just didn't think those attributes would be enough to beat the Trojans. I was wrong. Moore put points on the board in the first half when the opportunities presented themselves and he managed the game well. As far as Polk, is there anybody out there who really worried about the Beaver running game once it was announced that Yvenson Bernard wasn't going to play? I wasn't. The #2 runner for the Oregon State Beavers should not put up 100 against the Trojan defense. It just shouldn't happen but it did in this game.
It's not like the USC defense completely fell apart. Yes, they gave up 33 points and you know Pete Carroll isn't happy about that. They were also forced to play under the weight of four turnovers by the USC offense and, in the end, that was just too much to overcome. The defense did finally solve one of their biggest problems of the year, the lack of a pass rush, by getting to Matt Moore six times on the day.
Unfortunately, the defense was not able to force any turnovers of their own. The inability to force turnovers, while giving up the ball four times, showcases another huge issue for this 2006 team. As we sit here right now, the Trojans have a negative turnover ratio for the season. In past years, Carroll has taken righful pride in a turnover ratio that has been among the best in the country. Not this year. There is no mystery to how that can affect a team, the bigger the turnover ratio, the more chances you have to score and the fewer chances your opponent has to score. It just so happened that our offensive turnovers today really put us in a hole. The interception by John David Booty in the end zone obviously cost us a golden scoring opportunity while the fumbles by Chauncey Washington led directly to points for the Beavers, points which proved to be the difference between winning and losing.
In a strange way, our problems with turnovers put us in enough of a hole that we were forced to alter our game plan and, in the process, we saw a side of Booty that we hadn't seen before. We saw a gun-slinger, a guy who took charge in the fourth quarter and was throwing the ball around the field in a valiant comeback attempt. Booty put us on his back and almost delivered the type of victory that can define a career. Once the Trojans fell behind 33-10, it was as if the coaches turned to John David and say "go ahead and wing it". Perhaps the fumbles by Washington also contributed to the decision to throw the ball more. Whatever it was, it came very close to working. John David stood in the pocket and fired the ball to Steve Smith, a whole lot to Smith, and he also spread some key throws around to Dwayne Jarrett, Patrick Turner and Fred Davis. All told, he ended with over 400 yards passing but, as was the case with this game showing both good and bad, his final throw on the 2-point conversion was batted down at the line and that is a problem Booty has battled the entire year. A problem which picked a very poor time to surface.
As far as Steve Smith, what can you say? That was one of the all-time great receiver performances in USC history and it is made all the more impressive when you realize that he wasn't 100% due to a bad ankle. Steve made clutch play after clutch play and he was able to get downfield at critical times, something the Trojans have not been able to do a lot this year. USC radio announcer John Jackson, who ranks just ahead of Smith on several Trojan career receiving lists, recently joked that he wanted Steve to pass him in dramatic fashion. Well, Steve still trails JJ in overall catches (163 to 160, good for the #7 and #8 spots on the all-time list) but Smith passed him today in yards (2,379 for JJ to 2,603 for Smith) and touchdown grabs (17 to 19). Was that dramatic enough for you, JJ? It certainly was on this end.
With all of that being said, and with all of the questions that will be asked about turnovers, play calling and punt returns, the one thing that really has my attention after this game is the fact that we came out so flat. This game was supposed to highlight the renewed charge for the second half of the season, it was supposed to be the day we were finally going to break out and have the kind of crisp game we've all been waiting for. That didn't happen. From the start we came out uninspired and the Beavers dominated the first half of the game. The score may have only been 16-10 at halftime but anyone watching the game knew Oregon State was in control. How does that happen? With all that was at stake in this game, and with a fresh and rested team coming off a bye week, how did we get off to such a slow start? It has been our history under Carroll that we begin to peak as November approaches and I was really hoping to see that from the start on Saturday. Instead of gathering some steam with a solid effort, we now have to hope to gain some confidence next week in Palo Alto before beginning a rough four game stretch which will determine our bowl fate. To be honest though, how much will we be able to gain from Stanford? That is a down football team. The process should have started against Oregon State and the fact that we didn't come out strong is a concern that Carroll and his staff will have to take seriously.
The good news is that this team also showcased another important trait in this game and it's one that should not be overlooked. Even when things went bad, even when the team wasn't clicking, they somehow found a way to fight back. This team simply doesn't know any other way than to keep fighting. That's a championship mentality. When the score was 33-10, they found a way to get things going and, before you knew it, the Trojans were knocking on the door at the end with a two-point conversion looking to tie the game. You may beat the Trojans but you're going to have to fight until the end to do it. There are a lot of teams out there who don't know how to do that. The Trojans don't know any other way. It worked last year on 4th and 9, it didn't work on Saturday. It's not always going to work but it's nice to know that it is there. It is in our team. They have flaws, yes, and probably more than we are used to, but they are still the USC Trojans and they proved that even on an off-day they will find a way to fight.