USC’s Season Defining Games
The fantasy goals have disappeared. USC won’t finish the season undefeated, and the Trojans won’t win the Pac-10 title.
Realistically, anyone who expected either to happen hasn’t been paying attention.
What occurs in the next two weeks, however, will define Lane Kiffin’s first season as head coach.
Saturday at Arizona and the following Saturday at Oregon State are both winnable games. Talent-wise, the Trojans are good enough to capture back-to-back victories on the road.
Ah, but this isn’t only about talent. This is about mental toughness. This is about being motivated enough to go into two hostile environments and beat teams that likely will be favored to outpoint them.
If they can do it, if they somehow win both, they’ll be 8-3 with two more winnable games in L.A., against Notre Dame and at the Rose Bowl vs. UCLA. A 10-3 season, something that would be a major accomplishment under the circumstances, is certainly not beyond the realm of possibility.
But after barely escaping Arizona State at home, it is almost impossible to tell how USC will play starting Saturday in Tucson.
The Wildcats, rated among the top 15 nationally until last week, were routed by Stanford, leaving them as difficult to figure at this point as the Trojans. Can they bounce back with their “A” game just a week later?
Mike Stoops is probably wondering the same thing. Arizona is a team that has given USC fits of late, and that is likely to continue. The ‘Cats have a good defense and in Nick Foles, who is back from being injured, they have one of the better quarterbacks in the conference.
The strange thing is, the Trojans might be better off with Foles. His replacement, Mark Scott, is much more mobile, and we all know how Kiffin’s kids play against quarterbacks who can move around. Foles is more of a straight dropback passer, and the SC pass rush is usually much more effective against that type.
Either way, the Trojans’ offense has to get back into the kind of flow it had when Robert Woods was doing his thing. The freshman wideout, who has become the team’s most exciting player, sat out much of the Arizona State game with a sore back. They say he’ll be healthy and ready to go in Tucson. If he is, expect Matt Barkley to look much better at quarterback.
Unless their struggling defense dramatically improves, though, USC will be hard-pressed to win both of these upcoming road adventures. A more realistic goal might be a split that would give Kiffin an excellent shot at finishing 9-4.
All things considered, winning 9 games at USC this season would still be regarded as a moderate success.
PICKS OF THE WEEK — I had a few e-mails about that Michigan-Illinois game last week. Hey, with the Illini plus three, I had it all the way in an easy 68-67 (with the points) overtime blowout. (Yeah, right.) Then the Steelers came back and held off the Bengals late (minus four) to give me my first 2-0 week in a while. Hey, I’ve lost my share of close ones, too, so I’ll take it.
STANFORD (MINUS 5) AT ARIZONA STATE — I go back to the team I’ve been hyping all season. No one else had the Cardinal in their top 10, or top 20 for that matter, back in late August. And so far, they’ve only let me down once, and that was after leading Oregon 21-3 at one point. Jim Harbaugh’s guys seem to be peaking again, flattening a good Arizona team, while the Sun Devils are coming off an emotional one-point loss to USC. Besides, I love the match up at quarterback. Andrew Luck is as good as anybody in the country. Steven Threet is not. Throw in ASU’s volatile Vontaze Burfict, who might be the nation’s most athletic and most undisciplined linebacker, and yes, I’ll take Stanford, thank you.
EAGLES (MINUS 3) AT REDSKINS — This is a little scary, only because Donovan McNabb will be trying to prove a) Philly shouldn’t have dumped him, and b) Mike Shanahan shouldn’t have yanked him at the end of Washington’s last game. Even with that, though, you have to love the Eagles, with a much better defense, and Michael Vick, who is playing better than ever with no interceptions so far. That’s right, none. I’ll stick with Vick and all that athleticism in what should be a very entertaining Monday night event.
LAST WEEK’S RECORD: 2-0 OVERALL RECORD: 9-7-2
— STEVE BISHEFF