But while watching the game on Saturday, nothing could have prepared me for how abysmal the Cardinal truly are.
Starting the season, there certainly wasn't any talk of Stanford competing for the Pac-10 title, but the injury situation has put them in a position to suffer the indignity of being considered the worst team this conference has ever seen.
I was absolutely fascinated by how inept this team was in every phase of the game. They could do nothing well. In fact, the only thing that worked for Stanford was the onside kick to begin the second half.
It was interesting to watch a USC game where their opponent was so inferior, both physically and athletically. When just about every other team has at least two opponents on their schedule who have no business taking the same field as them, the Trojans haven't had that luxury during the past five years. Until Saturday.
The win against Stanford is much more indicative of how bad that team is than how good the Trojans are. T.C. Ostrander is arguably the most inexperienced quarterback they'll face the rest of the year. The run defense as well as the run offense was by far the worst. Also, Stanford was the only team left that had absolutely no hope to beat the Trojans. And they knew it.
But, with all that said, this game couldn't have come at a better time for USC. Nor could it have yielded a better result.
The Trojans needed a game where they could do just about anything they wanted and prove to themselves that they could play some serious football.
The offense did everything they needed to do. There wasn't anything spectacular, but they put together some long drives and showed an ability to score touchdowns in the red zone.
The defense was awesome. Every single guy who played (which was just about everyone on the roster) was flying around the field and hitting with everything they had. They finally looked like the same group that demolished the offense in the season's first three games.
The special teams, however. Actually, I'll give the special teams their own topic later on.
The bottom line with this game is that, because of where Stanford is as a football team right now, it doesn't really show where the Trojans are as a team either. But the Trojans definitely needed this pick-me-up before heading into the difficult part of their schedule, if only to wipe away the bitter taste of a loss. Now, this USC team will face Oregon next weekend on a high that they haven't experienced in more than a month.
Midwest Coast Offense: The fact that the USC game was such a non-game gives me an opportunity to ramble about a couple issues I saw in another game on Saturday.
I tuned into the Wisconsin – Penn State game partway through the third quarter and as ESPN cut to commercial, fading out with a clip of Badger quarterback John Stocco throwing a pass, the play-by-play guy stated emphatically, "John Stocco, absolutely on fire."
Now, I was curious. With how spoiled Trojan fans have become, I thought it would be interesting to stick around and find out what the rest of the country sees as a performance that can be described as "on fire." For most people who call the Coliseum home at this point, the only way John David Booty would get that tag is by completing 20 passes on 12 attempts for 600 yards and 8 touchdowns at halftime.
For John Stocco, the ESPN analyst and a majority of the country, however, "on fire" looks something like 15-25 for 172 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
I'm not saying that those numbers would win anyone a Heisman, but that kind of ball control and efficiency is more than enough to win a game. And that's always more important than putting up huge numbers.
Another thing worth mentioning from that game took place just before halftime.
Much has been made about the new clock rules in college football, but Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema was the first person I've seen this year to actually use the rules to his advantage.
After scoring the only touchdown of the game with just 23 seconds left in the first half, Wisconsin lined up to kick the ball to Penn State.
The Wisconsin coverage team watched Bielema on the sideline and, on his signal, began sprinting downfield. That by itself wouldn't seem all that unusual, but when you throw in the fact that Bielema purposely sent his runners early, so that they would all be five yards offside at the time of the kick, things get a little more interesting.
Wisconsin took advantage of the fact that the clock starts on the kick to run off several seconds as the coverage unit, with the headstart, was able to easily stop the returner.
Penn State accepted the five-yard penalty, and on the re-kick, Wisconsin did the exact same thing. The play was negated by offsetting penalties, but when Wisconsin kicked off for a third consecutive time, just four seconds remained in the half. After the kick and return, both teams jogged to their locker rooms. With 23 seconds left and Penn State going on offense, the Badger defense never had to take the field.
Obviously all coaches aren't going to take up this strategy, but you can bet that some coaches will continue to look for ways to take advantage of the clock rules.
Two Peas In A Pod. Punting. Perpetually: From what I saw on Saturday, Walt Harris absolutely deserves this terrible team. I don't say that because he's a bad person or because he owes me money or anything. I'm sure he's a great guy. He looks like Bob Saget meets my librarian and I enjoy both of them enough, so I don't see how I couldn't like him.
But with the decisions he made during the course of a game, he deserves a team with no personality, an inability to establish any sort of rhythm and no reason to have any confidence in itself.
On three separate occasions, the Cardinal faced a fourth down and seven yards or fewer between the 39 and 45 yard lines of USC. Each time, Harris ordered a punt.
I just can't understand how you could make that decision. If Harris decides to go for each of those fourth downs and doesn't get any of them, what's the worst that could happen? Stanford doesn't score any points and loses by 42? Oh, wait…
Pete Carroll faced the exact same situations on numerous occasions during the game and went for it just about every time. That's why Carroll has a team with a sense of confidence and an ability to rise up when challenged.
But the most puzzling thing about Harris' strategy on Saturday wasn't punting on those three possessions. It was punting on those three possessions and then beginning the second half with an onside kick.
That doesn't make any sense. He knew coming into the game that field position wasn't going to beat the Trojans. Why wait until the score is 28-0 before you start trying to win the game?
"It's Only 25 Cents, And Look How Much More You Get": The only thing during the game that was slightly disappointing was how the Trojans played during the third quarter. Ever since he arrived, Pete Carroll's teams have owned the third quarter. But this season, the Trojans have continually come out flat after halftime. Sure, part of it was due to the recovered onside kick, but the offense simply hasn't been clicking during the early parts of the third quarter.
Obviously there's nothing that anyone can point to as a specific reason for this. It could be just another mark of a youthful team. More likely on Saturday, it was just a byproduct of the Trojans getting just two third-quarter possessions. But the Trojans can't continue to let entire quarters go by without putting together a positive offensive drive.
Go Straight, Young Man: At the beginning of the season, Emmanuel Moody made a statement and came out strong as the freshman tailback at the front of the line. Now, as Chauncey Washington develops into the clear-cut number one, not only has Moody seen his carries dwindle, he might see his rushing attempts cut completely.
Don't get me wrong, Moody definitely has the shake and speed to eventually become a quality runner at the college level. But at this point, he isn't disciplined enough to be one.
A running back can only stop short and completely change direction on so many plays in a row before he starts forcing his offensive linemen to either miss assignments or blatantly hold the defender.
Moody displays a great second effort and an ability to glance off tackles for extra yards, but running sweeps with him is a recipe for disaster. Occasionally, he has shown an absolute disdain for following his blockers, which doesn't work at this level. So many smaller running backs have made a killing by simply closing their eyes, grabbing a hold of a lead blockers jersey and running until they're brought down. Notre Dame's Darius Walker and former Washington State running back Jerome Harrison are two guys who come to mind immediately.
He'll continue to see action as long as he hangs onto the football, but I won't completely trust him as a tailback until he learns to trust his blockers. The better defenses in the next two weeks will make him pay for continually trying to cut back and reverse field.
T2: Rise Of A Defender: During the week leading up to the contest, I was asked who I felt would have a breakout game against Stanford. I'm going to give myself a slight victory by saying that I didn't think this type of game would allow any offensive players to put up huge numbers, but I had no idea that Terrell Thomas would have the type of game he did on defense.
We all knew that Thomas could attack the quarterback and tackle, so the sack was welcome, but by no means shocking. What I was pleasantly surprised with, however, was his interception. The catch was nice, but I absolutely loved how he read the play and stepped in front of the wide receiver. Opposing quarterbacks need to know that they won't have that quick throw wide open every time and hopefully Thomas and the rest of the defense continue to play aggressively and look for those chances to step in front of the receiver.
Extra Special Teams: The special teams units took a bit of criticism for allowing the onside kick to be recovered and not forcing enough touchbacks on the seven kickoffs.
It's completely ridiculous.
The Trojans' special teams played as well as they have in a long time on Saturday.
The blocked field goal returned for a touchdown speaks for itself. But what really impressed me was the kickoff coverage. The Trojans kept three Cardinal kick returners to a 12.2 yard average on six returns, forced a fumble that nearly turned into a touchdown for the Trojans and didn't give up a return longer than 16 yards. I don't care if they're playing against a high school team; that's a solid performance.
The punt coverage team didn't allow any of Greg Woidneck's four punts to be returned and even though the Trojans didn't develop much in the way of a return game, it still goes down as a huge victory for the USC special teams.
If they can continue to play well on special teams, it should give them a huge advantage during the next four games.
More Like Cingular: After the loss to Oregon State, I spent a bit of time talking about how Dwayne Jarrett needs to stay focused on every ball thrown to him. He has the ability to catch everything within ten feet of him as long as he wants to.
He obviously read, word for word, everything I wrote.
He really only had five catchable balls thrown his way and finished the game with five grabs for 118 yards and a touchdown. His touchdown reception, as it turned out, was thrown in a very similar place as the interception against Oregon State. Only this time, Jarrett reached back and caught the ball off his back hip. It's the type of play we've seen Jarrett make so many times, but we usually forget that without total concentration, it can sometimes turn into a drop or worse, an interception.
Speaking of concentration, Patrick Turner and Fred Davis each had a big drop on Saturday. Turner's was on the first offensive play of the game and set the tone for a three-and-out. He had that great game against Washington and a big catch late in the game against Oregon State, but there are quite a few people who are still waiting for Turner to become the receiver he has the potential to be.
The Trojans' running game isn't exactly record setting, so if the Trojan offense is going to move the ball successfully and continually against the rest of its opponents, the wide receivers will need to haul in every single catchable ball. There's no excuse for dropping easy passes due to just not caring enough to catch them.
And Down The Stretch They Come: This game may not make it to the list of greatest Trojan games ever played, but it was played at a perfect time for this Trojan team.
Just about every player on the roster got a chance to see the field and there was an upbeat vibe along the Trojan sideline for all 60 minutes. It was nice to see the players re-learning how to go about dominating another team.
As this team heads into the meat of the 2006 schedule, the defense will need to maintain that physical presence, the offense will need to stay focused and capitalize on each and every possession, the special teams units will need to continue coming up with clutch plays, and I will need to keep up my pre-game routine from this past Saturday, rather than the week prior.
Erik McKinney is a columnist for www.WeAreSC.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.