Suddenly, USC’s Season is Fizzling
It’s what fascinates so many of us about sports. Everything can change quicker than a Tom Brady snap count.
Just last week, Lane Kiffin’s USC Trojans seemed on the verge of overcoming the odds and all their ugly circumstances, winning a huge game on the road in Arizona, squeezing back into the national Top 20 and cruising their way to an impressive 10-3 season.
But then they had to make another trip to their private House of Horrors, Reser Stadium in Corvallis, where once again Oregon State and Mike Riley proved to be too much to handle. If that wasn’t enough, if a 36-7 bludgeoning didn’t completely overwhelm them, the sudden prospect of playing their final two games without quarterback Matt Barkley and tailback Marc Tyler should.
Poof, just like that all the good things are in danger of disappearing for the Trojans, who are now staring at a possible 8-5 or even a 7-6 finish to a season that once seemed so encouraging.
Even WITH Barkley, there wouldn’t be much enthusiasm about playing an apparently improved Notre Dame, coming off two solid wins, and a beat up UCLA team that will nonetheless be energized to save whatever is left of its own season. Or maybe you didn’t watch that dreadful first half on Saturday night.
Before he went out at halftime with that high ankle sprain, Barkley dispensed the worst 30 minutes of his season, completing 10 passes for a paltry 75 yards and throwing a pick six interception that only turned the whole flow of the game around.
A strong case could even be made that Barkley and the offense have regressed in the past few weeks. After reaching what seemed to be an impressive new level at Stanford, coolly driving the Trojans for what should have been the winning touchdown in the final minute, the quarterback had two games in which he threw two interceptions each, and two more when he missed wide open receivers on potential long TD throws.
Kiffin seemed to sense the same thing, showing little confidence in his sophomore on Saturday, with an early game plan that was more conservative than a Rush Limbaugh rant. Kiffin basically took his two best weapons, wideouts Robert Woods and Ronald Johnson, out of the game by failing to throw anything but short safe passes. When both that and the running game failed to work, USC was basically out of business.
Of course, a lot of it had to do with Riley’s clever schemes. Oregon State’s coach, who happens to be the nicest man in the business, always comes up with game plans that fluster and frustrate the Trojans, whether it’s Kiffin, Pete Carroll or anyone else coaching the team. USC has proved it can beat just about any other coach in the country. But Riley always gives it fits.
Kiffin said Sunday he’s holding out hope that Barkley can play against the Fighting Irish, but ask any trainer about high ankle sprains. He’ll tell you they’re the worst kind and usually take weeks to heal. Tyler has had ankle issues of his own for the past two weeks, and although he bravely tried to make it through Saturday’s game, he, too, was finished by halftime and now has to be questionable for the next two games.
So can the Trojans win with Mitch Mustain at quarterback and somebody besides Tyler at tailback? Well, not with the Mustain we watched in the second half at Corvallis. To be fair, he didn’t get many reps the week before in practice and going in down 20-0 with ferocious Stephen Paea and the Beavers defense coming hard on every play, he didn’t have much of a chance.
He’ll get a better one this week if Barkley can’t make it. At home, against a defense that shouldn’t be too imposing, Mustain’s odds should improve. But the Trojans will still struggle unless they’re focused better than they were in the Pacific Northwest.
Kiffin had done an impressive job through 10 games, keeping his kids playing hard despite all the sanctions and a bowl ban, even managing to get them to bounce back from that emotional loss to Oregon. But now he faces a different kind of crisis.
Now he has to turn around a season that suddenly is in danger of slipping away.
After all he’s endured, USC’s beleaguered first-year coach now might have to try to beat the two biggest traditional rivals on his schedule without his No. 1 quarterback and tailback.
Remember when Kiffiin boldly stated before the season that this is the best coaching job in America?
Two chaotic months and 11 games later, you can’t help but wonder if he still feels that way.
Some quick hits after another big November weekend:
Wouldn’t it be nice if the Trojans could rent back Mark Sanchez for a couple of weeks? . . .
I swear I still can’t figure out why both the Jets and Pete Carroll were so conservative with Sanchez early. All this kid does is win big games. I will always believe if Carroll had started him a year early, he would have won a third national championship at USC . . .
Who does Jimmie Johnson have managing his NASCAR team, Bill Belichick? . . .
That Brady-Peyton Manning shootout certainly lived up to the hype, didn’t it? . . .
Forget about the records, Wisconsin, with that wonderful run-pass balance, clearly looks llke the best team in the Big 10 to me . . .
Write it down right now: South Carolina’s super freshman tailback Marcus Lattimore will finish 1-2-3 in next year’s Heisman race . . .
I agree with Fresno State’s Pat Hill. I think Boise State can play with anybody in the country . . .
Can someone please make sure 10-1 Stanford and Andrew Luck make it to a BCS bowl. It would be a shame if they didn’t . . .
Come on, you know the Yankees and Derek Jeter eventually will agree on a new contract, right? . . .
The Cincinnatti Bengals certainly find creative ways to lose, don’t they? . . .
Say good night, Brett . . .
— STEVE BISHEFF