If anything, the Trojans are used to peaking as we head into a bowl game. In 2001, the Trojans headed into the Las Vegas Bowl coming off a 27-0 beating of UCLA that set to the tone for the late season dominance we have enjoyed for so long. I can't explain what happened against Utah so I won't even try. Needless to say, starting in 2002, the Trojans have been on a consistent late season tear. When USC got picked to play Iowa in the Orange Bowl, the Trojans were the team nobody wanted to face. A late-season surge, led by Carson Palmer and Troy Polamalu and fueled by the energy of Justin Fargas, had most every pundit in America noticing that USC was playing high level football and it showed with the shellacking of the Hawkeyes. The next year the momentum continued in the Rose Bowl against Michigan and we all know what happened the year after that when Oklahoma lined it up against the Trojans in the Orange Bowl. That game against the Sooners might still go down as the greatest single display of dominant football these eyes have ever seen. Even in the Rose Bowl loss against Texas, you can't say that the Trojans played bad football. We certainly played good enough to win, we just made enough mistakes to lose and the Longhorns had a terrific player named Vince Young who was good enough to capitalize on those mistakes.
Now this 2006 team gets set to face a solid Michigan team while trying to regain their footing after a stunning loss. All signs were pointing in the direction of Arizona, everyone was getting excited about playing in the BCS title game against Ohio State, and then all of a sudden it was gone. How does the team react? Pete Carroll took the rare step of declaring discussion about the UCLA game off-limits in the days following the loss. Trojan fans walked around stunned and many wondered how the team would be able to get up for playing another game so soon. Even some of the younger Trojan players were caught unprepared and didn't know how to react and turn the page to start getting ready for the next game. At that point, it was vitally important for the leadership on the team, particularly veteran seniors such as Ryan Kalil, Oscar Lua and Dallas Sartz, to step up and make sure the Trojan ship got set straight as soon as possible.
"Coach Carroll put it on us right away," said Lua. "The older guys, we've been through some losses before, we're more familiar with the tough situations so we needed to be the ones to lead by example. It's not something where we went around talking to guys one-on-one, it was more of a team thing, a group effort. As the older guys, we need to set the intensity and tone to show that we've got a chance to play in a great bowl game like the Rose Bowl. You can't sit back and be disappointed, you've got to move on. With a team like ours, with so many young and talented guys, it was very important for us to provide that leadership. We needed to show pure effort and willpower, all those things that describe what being a Trojan is all about."
Lua said the transition to getting back to Trojan football on the practice field was immediate. There was no lingering hangover from the UCLA game, perhaps helped in part by the fact that the players had a week off after the game to focus on finals. Whatever the case, the upcoming 12 days of practice in preparation for the Rose Bowl could be as important as any in recent memory.
The Trojans face the possibility of losing three times at the Rose Bowl in less than a year, a scary prospect for a team that considers the stadium "Coliseum North". Go downstairs at Heritage Hall and you will be reminded with a large color portrait of the famed stadium and the statement "Own the Rose Bowl" written across the top in big, bold letters with a yearly listing of the Rose Bowl crowns won by the Trojans. Unlike in recent years, however, when the Trojans would rally around the statement "We're just getting started", it doesn't seem like that same momentum is with USC right now. Much like in 2002, when the Trojan program was still learning how to win, this 2006 team seems to still be searching for that magic formula. The Trojans are still a formidable opponent for anyone to face but there is a slight difference between the team that is taking the field now and the teams that have rolled over opponents in recent years.
"I think in some ways this USC team is chasing ghosts," says Darrell Rideaux, a cornerback on the 2002 team. "The ghosts are from the teams before them that accomplished so much. Learning how to win is such an important thing, it's not an automatic. I think that was one of the most important things about what we did in 2002, not only did we learn how to win as a program but we set it up for the following year to build upon that winning attitude. That's what I am looking to see in this Rose Bowl. How does this team come out for this game and what kind of affect will that have as we move forward to the 2007 season? Will this game set the tone for next season in the way that the Iowa Orange Bowl did? That's what I want to know."
It won't take long to find out the answers either. The good news for Trojan fans is that the practices for the Rose Bowl so far have been crisp and the team looks to be in good spirits as they prepare for this critical football game. Maybe the answer will lie in the leadership of the players. Perhaps it will come in a cunning display of brilliance from the coaches. Maybe it will be something much more simple than that, something more basic that can only be summed up in the words of Oscar Lua.
"We just need to go full blast and get back to being "pri**s" on the football field."
Whatever it takes, Oscar, whatever it takes.