F. Scott Fitzgerald ended The Great Gatsby with the metaphor of boats beating against the current, an image that has become so cliché it seems to have lost all meaning.
But it was hard not to think of the passage while watching USC flail against Washington on Saturday. And it wasn’t only the boats sailing on Lake Washington just outside of Husky Stadium that conjured up the image.
The Trojans’ struggles against a scrappy, mid-level Pac-10 team have become so institutionalized at USC that the annual event is almost a cliché in itself. Instead of being surprised by Saturday’s outcome, most Trojan fans felt like they were headed in a direction they had been before.
In fact, it’s a surprise there wasn’t a USC fan in the crowd who could have spoiled the ending for everyone based on past follies. A true fan might have stood up after USC’s tying drive and blurted out, “I’ve seen this one before — the other team kicks a field goal in the final seconds and the fans rush the field. I’m gonna head out and beat traffic.”
But this year was supposed to be different, right? USC coach Pete Carroll spent all week insisting the Trojans wouldn’t be caught off-guard again, that they had finally learned their lesson.
To the players’ credit, they certainly appeared up to the task. They made it look like they were on pace for another USC blowout with their first quarter performance.
“It wasn’t a question of being ready to play emotionally or anything,” Carroll said, drawing a contrast to past letdowns.
This wasn’t a matter of the Trojans falling behind and seeing their comeback cut short by time or one key play like in so many past losses.
It was simply a case of USC getting outcoached.
Carroll took ownership for the loss immediately afterward, despite most of his players showing maturity by placing the burden on themselves. But this mea culpa might mean the Trojans are in for more trouble.
With Carroll having more than enough scouting information at his disposal, there was no excuse for being unprepared for what the Huskies threw at the Trojans. USC coaches and players alike said after the game that there were “no surprises” in the game beyond their own mistakes, but maybe that’s a cause for concern.
The Trojans’ struggles to adapt down the stretch might have been understandable if Washington had beaten USC by employing some Boise State-like gadget plays.
But Washington could have broadcast its gameplan on the JumboTron and USC still might have been too fickle to adjust.
Carroll’s blunders are best exemplified by his handling of the quarterbacks throughout the week. Both he and quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates kept reporters guessing while they waited to see how Matt Barkley’s shoulder injury progressed. But with the bone bruise to the true freshman improving only incrementally over the week, sophomore Aaron Corp took all the first-team snaps and looked like he had seized temporary command of the position.
At some point, Carroll would have to invest himself in Corp and show him that the team was committed to rallying around him as a starter.
Asked when the coaching staff told him he would be starting Saturday’s game, Corp said — with his head held low — that “they never really did.”
Corp would never say it, but the message came through louder than a bullhorn: USC’s coaching staff never really showed faith in him.
The coaches’ attitude was evident in the play-calling. Corp was forced to be a dropback passer instead of using his trademark mobility. It’s possible the decision was due to the lingering effects of Corp’s preseason fractured fibula, but coaches insisted during the week that he was 100 percent recovered.
Their trepidation also showed on a third-down play from the Huskies’ 7-yard line when the Trojans elected to run the ball instead of taking a shot at the end zone. Ensuring the game-tying field goal may have entailed the lowest risk, but since when has Carroll made it a point to adhere to coaching conventions?
Corp was not at his best on Saturday, but quarterbacking should never be a pop quiz. Yet Corp is the one who unfairly faces being a potential pariah among students instead of Carroll.
If Carroll isn’t a fan of Fitzgerald, perhaps he can learn through literature by picking up a book by Malcolm Gladwell. The coach references Outliers when referring to Barkley, but he might want to take a look at The Tipping Point, which details how the tiniest factors can catalyze unforeseen and sometimes disastrous endings.
The book could re-emphasize the point that if the Trojans can’t get back to their normal standard of play, they will find themselves falling short of another Pac-10 championship. Then the only thing at stake will be an at-large BCS bid. Or the Holiday Bowl. Or the Sun Bowl.
And if English isn’t Carroll’s pleasure, maybe a spelling lesson will do. Right now, there’s no “SC” in the word “finish,” despite what those T-shirts may say.
But finishing strong might be the only way for Carroll to right his ship.
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