Everyone knows Pete's pedigree – former NFL head coach who done good in the college game, up until this season. Let's be honest, this is the worst a USC team has looked, in well 28 straight consecutive Pac Ten losses. So, the streak is over. Finding an identity for this ball club has been Carroll's greatest challenge. If that's true, then the last 1.5 quarters of the Oregon State debacle just might qualify has solid purchase. Because with John David Booty playing gunslinger and a resurrected running game from the Arizona State game both on the table, the Trojans just may have turned the corner.
Consider games 1 through 6 kind of Carroll's college version of the NFL pre-season. A prize-fight, if you will, where the first 7 rounds are spent by the trainers just trying to figure out what sort of palooka they're working with.
I know… "How can a team of the caliber of the USC Trojans ever have to turn a corner? Aren't they always there?" Answer: "No."
Look around at the Miami's, Oklahoma's, Florida State's of the world – you know the programs that were dominating the college ranks while Pete and his men were just trying to get ours to float. They're done – for now. So far done that only the Sooners are in the top 25. It's hard to keep it all going and so, every-once-in-a-while you slip up, fall short of the mark, land…face down in a pile of mud.
That's where Pete was last week, for maybe a minute – face down in mud. But, as soon as he realized his prone position, he got up, cleaned himself up and took a long look at what lied ahead of him and his men. What he saw was the rest of the season, a chance to control one's own destiny, the Rosebowl and maybe more. What he saw is what he's always seen – no matter how you approach it, no matter how it goes, it's always going to be one game at a time. So what did he do, he got up and got to work.
Heading into Saturday's matchup it becomes hard to find any advantage for Stanford over USC. Head Coach Walt Harris has lost his best receiver, number one quarterback and a slew of other kids who might have kept Stanford's 2006 season from being a total disaster. They're dust and so are Stanford's hopes of salvaging the year. So forget looking at Stanford as an opponent – and no, it's not going to be any easier this weekend than it was last for the Trojans because you've got to play every opponent as perfectly as you can but in this game, the only thing that's going to matter is who does what and how for USC. Stanford could be cardboard cut-outs for all it matters. This game is the blueprint for the remainder of the season. The point where all the lessons learned from the prior 7 matchups are thrown together to make what the nation has come accustomed to – true Trojan football. This team, this game, this weekend is the point where this team's identity is finally defined – for better or worse.
Will the real USC please stand up? Most have yet to recognize anything that might resemble former versions of the Cardinal and Gold. Dropped passes, blown assignments, poor play calling and the turnovers – since when is a Pete Carroll team on the negative side of the turnover margin… Never.
In last year's Rosebowl game, and yes, we are discussing the past was a different version of a Pete Carroll team. Players were doing uncharacteristic things like ill-advised laterals, getting beat deep, sucked inside and away from the ball, play calling that was so obvious the opposing defense was already lined up to shut it down before the ball was snapped, coaches calling timeouts…it was a total snafu but what was most shocking was the Trojans were suddenly on the wrong side of the Pete Carroll mantra "It's all about the ball."
That game marked a turning point in this program. Thanks to injury Carroll had to play kids who should have never seen the field or who weren't mentally or physically ready to see it. Back then, fans and the media wrote off USC's collapse in those final minutes as a symptom of those issues. Everyone believed that come this Fall, things would be better – especially on defense but that hasn't happened.
So far that hasn't been the case. The defense, pegged early as a strength of this team, the element that would keep delivering victories while its offensive counterpart found its legs, has been good but not great. They've failed in that one magical category – taking the ball away. And that has been the major contributing factor to the entire team's struggles.
Following the loss of the Trojans' entire offensive backfield, as well as key players to the offensive line, there was no doubt that that side of the ball was going to have growing pains. What was supposed to ease those pains was a physical, high flying, heavy hitting, ball-hawking defense. Instead, and unfortunately due to injury to key players like Josh Pinkard and the early departure of others like Manual Wright, what Pete Carroll has been forced to field is a watered down of what many experts felt was going to be the best defense in the nation.
Consequently neither the offense nor the defense has been able to step up enough to bail the other out. What the nation is left with is a program that was supposed to have reloaded but instead is frantically trying to plug holes while players mature through game-time experience. This means that often, the end result isn't very pretty (see first half of the Oregon State game).
When you look at the turnover aspect and couple it with the new clock rules, which drastically reduce the number of plays an offense has to operate with, you realize that giving up the ball this year means exponentially more than it did ever before – because a team is giving away one of the few opportunities it will have to control the game. It's been devastating to the growth of Pete Carroll's charges and one can only think that eventually all that momentum will shift back in the Trojans' favor.
Through last season and into this, no head coach has had to deal with so many issues on and off the field – issues that have struck at key positions over and over. Carroll, despite the adversity, has maintained the course – sticking with what got him the National Championships and Heisman trophies. His players have stuck with it too and if the fans and media have paid attention, they've seen evidence of that produced on the field in last minute smashmouth drives, defensive goal-line stands and enough aerial fireworks to close a Who concert.
What needs to happen for the Trojans against lowly Stanford is for all of that, plus a few strips and another half-dozen sacks, to come together for an entire sixty minutes. Leaders need to be found, coaches delivered and a complete team put on the field for USC.
Through the fire, that has been the 2006 season a team just might arrive this Saturday afternoon in Stanford Stadium. Regardless of what Stanford does, SC must arrive. This Saturday is their launch party. The preseason is over and what's left remaining is for all the marbles – every game, every Saturday until the Trojans rewrite this season enough to erase any aspect of the story that might say what this team was about had anything to do with fiction – pulp or otherwise.
This is their time and from the head down, and all together, they need to embrace it to become the newest, latest and greatest version of the USC Trojans.
SC gets healthy but Pete won't pummel old time friend Walt Harris. Stanford just doesn't have the horses to put up a real fight. Look for Trojan backups, like Mark Sanchez and Stafon Johnson to finally get playing time in the fourth quarter. Trojans won't yield to media pressure to run up score but instead look upon every snap as an opportunity to refine this work-in-progress.
The Trojans put up their best game since the opener at Arkansas to regain a fraction of its swagger just in time for Oregon's arrival and the Trojans' home stretch.
USC 48 Stanford 16