First, I think it is very fair to say that in most programs, a 10 win and 2 loss season, combined with a fifth straight, and unprecedented Pac-10 title with an automatic bid to the Rose Bowl would be considered a huge success. I also think that as a result of having experienced and produced unparalleled success over the prior 4 years, Pete Carroll and his Trojans set the bar of excellence so high that almost anything other than a perfect season and an invite to the BCS Championship game itself is considered somewhat of a letdown. Talk about unrealistic and almost unattainable goals! Ironically, despite all the personnel losses and having played one of the nation's toughest schedules, the Trojans were actually in position to get that invitation to the BCS Championship game, right up until they lost to the UCLA Bruins for the first time in 8 years. I don't think I am exaggerating when I state that is a loss that will linger for some time in the minds of players and fans alike, and perhaps most of all, in Pete Carroll's head.
Now that a week has passed since the disappointing loss, I think it is a reasonable time to take a closer look at this regular season and to put things in some perspective and to try and get an idea of what really did happen and perhaps why or why not.
The 2005 football season was the first time USC took the field without having Norm Chow as the offensive coordinator. First time Offensive Coordinator Lane Kiffin ended up running and calling plays for what many feel was the most prolific offenses in USC history and it was also one of the great units in the history of college football. Even in its sole losing effort to the Texas Longhorns, that team gained over 500 yards and scored 38 points. To my way of thinking, in such a game, the loss can hardly be placed squarely on the offense. With that kind of offensive production, most teams that have a competent defense will win the game. Unfortunately for USC, that was not the case as Texas and Vince Young were even more unstoppable than USC. Unfortunately, many feel that 2005 was not a true indicator of what USC might be able to expect from a Lane Kiffin led offense once guys like Leinart, Bush and White cleared out. It was the 2006 season that would tell the story, or so some claimed.
Well, the 2006 regular season is now history and we did get to see what the SC offense would look like with a more "mortal" appearing offense. And to my eye, and in the eyes of many others, the results this season were not what many had hoped to see. Even in many of the winning efforts against formidable foes, the offense seemed to struggle for parts of many games and the season culminated with a relatively poor offensive performance against UCLA. In that game, USC scored a total of only 9 points with the offense accounting for a mere 7. It was the first time in 65 games that USC had failed to score at least 20 points and as one might expect, the battle lines were drawn. On one side there are those who support Coach Carroll and his offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, and on the other side is a group who still really appreciate and respect Coach Carroll but who question why he would turn over the offense to a young guy who has been called unimaginative and predictable by many, including his opponentsand who has also failed to make very noticeable offensive halftime adjustments. Just to emphasize that nothing is ever quite as cut and dry as all that, I think there is a third group as well, one which supports and loves Coach Carroll but one which wonders if the offensive problems are only partly on Kiffin, and partly on a combination of circumstances such as too many injuries and a newer, somewhat conservative offensive approach that really reflects what Pete Carroll likes to see in an offensive football team.
Personally, I think it is important to remind everyone that averaging 387.9 yards 30.3 points per game is a significant accomplishment. Those are numbers, combined with 10 wins along the way, that most programs would kill to have. However, those numbers are still somewhat disappointing to my way of thinking. I can't help but feel that the team was probably capable of significantly more from an offensive standpoint. Whether it was an inopportune illegal motion call, a seemingly off the wall play call, or simply and a bit too often, just bad execution, the USC offense seemed to truly roll in only one game this season, and that was in the very first outing against Arkansas. Why, does one suppose that was the case, especially since it was John David Booty's very first start?
After giving much thought to the USC offense and its production, I have a definite idea as to what the biggest problems were and I have a feeling that many will vehemently disagree. Nonetheless, since this is simply an opinion, I will give it anyway. I think the two biggest losses this team suffered this year, were simply too much to overcome, especially considering what Pete Carroll really loves to see an offensive team do. First and foremost, USC could not totally compensate for the losses at fullback. How many teams could lose a stud like Brandon Hancock only to come up with a guy who in some ways might have been better, Ryan Powdrell? There is a guy who weighs close to 260 pounds, can run fast, block like a lineman at times and who can also catch the ball. It is no coincidence, that a healthy Powdrell was perhaps the key contributor on offense against the Razorbacks. Unfortunately, as we all know, Ryan suffered a horrible fractured leg against Nebraska and that made two fullbacks that SC lost. Lo and behold, USC came up with another budding star, Stanley Havili to step in and take up the slack at fullback. But as fate would have it, he also broke his leg and was lost for the rest of the season as well. In an almost unbelievable setting, USC's other potential fullback, Michael Coleman was also injured and unable to compete for much of the season. To make matters even worse, the one true power back that SC was counting on for big things, Chauncey Washington, was hurt for the majority of the season. In fact, I am not sure he was healthy enough to really have much of a chance to succeed against UCLA's pretty tough defense.
So what does all that really mean? Well, it means that SC was in trouble, in some ways, almost doomed. Thinking back to last year, even with Reggie, LenDale, Matt, DJ and Steve Smith, how many times was it David Kirtman at fullback who made one clutch play after another to pull USC out of a jam. That is not to say that the fullback position was an end in itself, rather that even in a system stacked with true collegiate superstars, the fullback was crucial. Fast forward to this year. I believe that SC often had trouble successfully doing what it really wanted to do because the fullback position and the power tailback positions were both lacking. Of course, another question now arises. Could that have been fixed or improved, despite all the other losses? Well, the coaches have those answers, but as a fan, I could not help but wonder why Allen Bradford did not get considerably more looks at both fullback and power tailback. Whenever a fan, or as the athletic director once referred to some as "Joe Blow" asks a question like that, it rattles some feathers. OK, so what's wrong with that? It is a free country and even know nothings have a right to ask, don't they?
As for the rest of the offense, it was an up and down affair. John David Booty started for the first time in his career and he was chosen as the top quarterback in the Pac-10. I guess he did not do all that poorly. However, he was placed in the unenviable position of following two consecutive Heisman winning quarterbacks at USC, namely Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart. No matter what he did, one could simply imagine that he would have his detractors. In the end, Booty threw for 25 touchdowns and 9 interceptions while completing almost 62% of his passes. Unfortunately, life as the starting quarterback for USC can be brutal. After talking to many people and after reading article upon article, it seems that JD Booty might be remembered most for two of his passes that were knocked down. On two eerily similar plays, John David did not get it done. He had a pass batted down that could have sent the game into overtime against Oregon State and he had a passed batted down and picked off against the Bruins on a drive that was set to win the game. To be fair, neither game was lost solely because of Booty's play, but as the quarterback, he could have been a true hero and he simply did not get it done.
For much of the year, the offensive line was described as a unit that had potential to be really good, but I don't think the whole thing ever totally clicked. The pass blocking was good and the run blocking was good, but neither ever seemed to take it to the next, elite level. One must realize, of course, that the bar had once again been set very high. However, due to an injury to Jeff Byers and due to an academic snafu by Matt Spanos, the experienced depth was not available and some of the newer guys did not really play at the next level. Of course, the Oline also had to block for one inexperienced runner after another. It seemed like week in and week out, a different backfield, once again an inexperienced one at that, was starting. Young guys who don't know how to take advantage of all that is given to them have a way of making the line look bad, sometimes really bad, albeit sometimes looks are very deceiving indeed.
It also did not help Kiffin's cause and the offense in general that for a very significant part of the season, one or both of his primary receiving stars was hurt, and at one time, both Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith were hurt at the same time. It is bad enough to have all new guys in the backfield, but to be missing the best one-two receiving duo in college football can make things downright unbearable for any offensive coordinator and offensive unit. It has also been said that perhaps this offense lacked a true game breaking burner. I guess it is hard to argue with that assertion, but even guys who are not the fastest in the world can inflict plenty of damage against the opponents when all is executed to perfection. I can't help but believe that Notre Dame would prefer to deal with some fast, little kid all day long as opposed to ever having to face Irish Killer Dwayne Jarrett ever again.
Of course, one could discuss almost every single player like tight end Fred Davis and the freshmen running backs such as Emmanuel Moody, CJ Gable, Allen Bradford and Stafon Johnson in great detail, but then any article would be far too long. I think it would be fair to say that there is a great deal of offensive talent available and much of it should be improved come next year. I have to hope that there is more creativity and less predictability in the play calling. Of course, there was a time that SC would simply line up across from the opposing defenses and say, he we come, see if you can stop us. Personally, I think that is exactly what Pete Carroll really wants to do more often than not. For that to succeed, however, the right guys will have to be healthier and the execution by all involved will have to take a step up as well. Remember, even after the two losses, Pete did not call out a bunch of individuals or bad play calling. Instead he pointed to turnovers and poor overall execution. Any time a team has a 10-2 season during a "rebuilding year", I suppose there is a great deal of truth to that philosophy which got the team there in the first place.
And how about the defense? Well, by the end of this past season, I think SC's defense was one of the very best, if not the best in America. Well, if it was so good, how come SC lost to UCLA? That loss folks, was not on that unit. Anytime a defense holds an offense to less than 250 yards and 13 points, it has done its job. It should also be noted, that a running quarterback is perhaps the most difficult match up in college or pro football to this day. If you doubt that, check out the way SC struggled against Vince Young and the way the pros are having fits with him again this year at the next level. Any quarterback who is a good to very good passer who can also motor is going to be a match up issues. Against the Bruins, Cowan was very good as a runner and just good enough throwing the ball to score 13 points. How many would have taken that and run with it before the game ever started?
For much of the early part of the year, this defensive unit played a bend but don't break type of game. There were limited blitzes and Pete and his new defensive coordinator, Nick Holt, tried to keep everything in front and they tried to prevent the big play. Very early in the season, USC lost all everything safety Josh Pinkard, and his talented but very young replacement, Taylor Mays, was inexperienced. USC did seem to give up its share of third and long conversions and they also gave up its share of yardage, at least between the 20's. However, with that scheme the Trojans did manage to keep most teams out of the end zone and things were holding up well enough, at least till Oregon State lit up the Trojans for season high 33 points allowed. Of course, to be fair, many of those points were set up by turnovers and there is not much a defense can do when placed in one horrendous situation after another.
It was shortly after that loss to Oregon State that this defense stepped it up big time. Evidently there were some team and coaches meetings and it was finally decided to let the fabulous USC defensive athletes loose and to turn it up a notch. Mission accomplished on that one. Guys like Sedric Ellis and Lawrence Jackson stepped way up. Brian Cushing was becoming more comfortable at his elephant position and the blitz packages were coming more and more often. The speed and strength of the defense was allowed to strut its stuff and the opposition was having a heck of a time accomplishing much of anything. The SC defense put the clamps on Notre Dame and the high flying offenses that both Cal and Oregon brought to the Coliseum were pretty much shut down. The defensive line, once thought by some to be a relative weakness, turned into a ferocious unit that was tough as nails. The linebackers were flying all around and Keith Rivers was doing the number 55 proud. Rey Maualuga still overran some plays, but ask Cowan how he felt after getting rocked by this dynamo. For all his injuries, Lua played inspired and excellent football. When finally allowed to show some serious one on one cover abilities, Terrell Thomas was up to the task and Cary Harris also played the best football of his short USC career.
All told, the defense, even in defeat proved to be what most of us had hoped to see. The defense is simply fast, athletic and tough. When Pete and Nick took the gloves off and let this unit fly around and ATTACK, it was lights out for most of the offenses it faced. If it is true that defense wins championships, then SC is in business in it next game.
As for special teams, they were not perfect, nor were they horrible. A couple of times, the punt coverage was simply terrible, though I am told that sometimes the punter out kicked his coverage. Kickoff specialist Troy Van Blarcom was a bit of an enigma. For much of the time, he was all world. He would kick the ball too far and deep to be returned. Then for no obvious reason, he would go into a funk and then work his way out. Danelo is incredibly accurate at short and medium range field goals and who will ever forget that long field goal by David Buehler, a 49 yard boomer to be exact. The punt return game was never much of a threat, though Desmond Reed did manage one very good return against the Fighting Irish of all teams--poetic justice one might assume.
So now that the regular season is over, now what? Well, now comes perhaps the most important game of this season. To my way of thinking, this is a must win bowl game for the Trojans. First, it is never good to end a season with back to back losses. Second, one just knows that the big bad Big-10 bullies are licking their chops and figure that they will have no trouble demolishing this USC team. I mean, if the Bruins could stop them, just wait till Michigan gets them by the throat.
Wouldn't it be ironic if SC wins this game? I mean the Pac-10 is supposed to be so weak, yet SC suffered its two losses in conference. The Trojans had no trouble with Arkansas from the SEC, Nebraska from the Big 12 and Notre Dame from --well--Notre Dame. I know that Lane has called some strange stuff this year, but to be fair, he also called that great fake field goal where Smith lined up very wide. He also called that great 4th down call against Cal that ended up with the touchdown to Steve Smith. And somebody, and I have to assume it was Lane Kiffin who called the best quarter of offensive football all year long, the fourth quarter against Oregon State. I have to think if we see an offense like that against the Wolverines, we will have a great shot at winning the game. SC has the athletes. The Oline and offensive backfield will undoubtedly get lots of practice against major pressure in preparation for this game. After watching our last game, the opposition thinks they have the blueprint for how to shut down USC. Ok, we have Pete and his staff to counteract all that. I am simply hoping the coaches and players come out ready and that we have a great game plan and then we make the necessary halftime adjustments to give the kids their best shot at winning the Rose Bowl.