All signs pointed to it.
A week after a huge emotional win, a week of practice swirling with uncertainty, all leading up to a road game against a team nobody thinks has a shot.
Smelled like trouble.
Looked like trouble.
Man, was it ever trouble.
In what has become a yearly occurrence for USC, the Trojans’ undefeated record was blemished and their national championship hopes put into serious jeopardy at the hands of an unranked Pac-10 opponent, this year courtesy of Washington, 16-13 in Seattle.
Were you shocked? Were you tearing your hair out? Really, we should have sensed this one coming.
To start, the Trojans were coming off the program’s most intense victory in four years after beating Ohio State 18-15 last week in Columbus. The emotional letdown following that game was inevitable, no matter how much USC coach Pete Carroll tried to force his team to get past it.
But other than the emotional aspect, this game was not like the Oregon State debacle of a year ago.
In fact, the Trojans came out and started fast, with their offensive line blowing the Huskies off the ball as if they were tackling dummies. In the first quarter, junior running back Joe McKnight and senior tailback Stafon Johnson ran through holes wider than Lake Washington. The Trojans marched down the field in seven quick plays on their first drive and McKnight sped into the end zone with ease.
Against the Beavers last year, the Trojans were as flat as an old 2-liter bottle of Coke to start the game. Saturday, they came to play.
But so did the Huskies. Behind the heroics of quarterback Jake Locker, the Huskies took the Trojans opening punch and punched back — harder. Suddenly, those holes McKnight was waltzing through on the first drive were sealed by an invigorated Washington defense.
“They just outplayed us,” McKnight said, adding, “Hard work beats athleticism any day and that’s what they did.”
Yes, hard work, even from a football team that was winless last year. Forget the fact that the Huskies lost 15 straight games before beating Idaho last week. Forget that they were 19-point underdogs against the Trojans.
Remember that they are coached by two guys who know every inch of USC’s offensive and defensive playbook.
Washington coach Steve Sarkisian and defensive coordinator Nick Holt, less than a year removed from coaching alongside Carroll at USC, know the Trojans’ schemes on both sides of the ball better than any coaches outside of Heritage Hall. Very rarely in the game — and especially after the first quarter — did a Washington player look out of position.
Carroll gave Sarkisian and Holt their due credit.
“When you really like people, you want good things to happen to them, so I’m happy for them in that regard,” Carroll said of his former fellow coaches.
Now to the elephant in the room — Aaron Corp. Putting the loss entirely on the redshirt sophomore’s shoulders is neither fair nor valid. But he certainly did not help the Trojans’ cause.
He never got into a rhythm throwing the football. He consistently threw into traffic and finally paid for it with his red zone interception in the third quarter.
Corp was undoubtedly disappointed after losing his long-awaited first start.
“I wish I had some stuff back I didn’t play well to my standards,” Corp said.
Remember, however, that the two other costly turnovers USC committed inside Washington’s 35-yard line came on fumbles by Johnson and redshirt junior fullback Stanley Havili — two plays completely out of Corp’s hands.
“When you play football like this, your chances of winning are so difficult,” Carroll said. “For us to go out there and turn the ball over like that, we fumbled the ball more times than we lost it.”
But that won’t stop people from pondering if Barkley would have done a better a job.
The answer, though, is that he wouldn’t have. Despite Barkley’s heroics a week ago, his statistics were nothing special. He deserved credit for his poise more than his completion percentage against the Buckeyes, so there’s no way of knowing if he wouldn’t have made the same mistakes Corp made on Saturday.
What really hurt the Trojans, however, was the uncertainty throughout the week leading up to the game. Barkley wasn’t practicing, yet Carroll wouldn’t rule him out. Corp said he approached every practice last week as if he was the starter, but that’s just not the same as definitively knowing that you’re going to be the guy.
Carroll, of course, did not say Corp was any less prepared because of it. But he couldn’t deny that his performance was subpar.
“We didn’t throw the ball well today.” Carroll said. “It was obvious. We threw the ball for 110 yards and couldn’t get the ball down the field. We rarely get in that situation.”
So while it’s pointless to argue about how things might have changed had Barkley played, the uncertainty brought about by the true freshman’s injury resulted in Corp not being fully ready to play and the offense being severely out of sync.
The mixture of all these things — an unavoidable emotional letdown after the Ohio State win, a coaching staff that knew all the Trojans’ plays and doubt all week over who would start at quarterback — made for one volatile combination that shouldn’t have blindsided anyone.
Just another shocking USC upset that really was no shock at all.
“Middle Ground” runs Mondays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or email Josh at email@example.com.