Ah, homecoming — a time for students, fans and alumni to join together and party themselves into oblivion.
And I guess there’s a football game too.
A 12:30 p.m. kickoff may be somewhat of a buzzkill for most USC fans, but the Trojans are probably just happy to be returning home. The last four games have done little to inspire faith in the team, so what better place than the Coliseum to set things straight for the final three contests of the year?
But by scheduling Stanford for the homecoming game, it’s clear that someone in the athletic department either has a nose for good storylines or an excellent sense of humor.
I don’t have to remind you of the 2007 game that has been coined by some as “The Greatest Upset Ever.” You’ll hear plenty of reminders throughout the week that this is Stanford’s first game in the Coliseum since that night. The media will hype up the revenge game only to have USC coach Pete Carroll and his players downplay the angle, and rightly so.
Both programs have undergone shifts since that October night two years ago, and there are bigger objectives at play than vengeance. USC and Stanford are in the thick of a conference title race, and a loss Saturday would set either team back in a shot at a top-tier bowl.
But there’s still a lesson to be taken from the last time the Trojans lost in the Coliseum.
Last time, I was standing on the sideline right next to the end zone, where Stanford wide receiver Mark Bradford came down with the winning touchdown catch. Listening to the sound of more than 85,000 people going silent still ranks as one of the more surreal sensory experiences in my life.
The loss hit home for players in more than one way. It was just the first time in 36 games that the Trojans had dropped a game at the Coliseum. And it came to a 41-point underdog whose coach had entered the year promoting that year’s USC squad as the best team in the history of college football.
Senior defensive end Lawrence Jackson said a loss was the same “whether you’re in the Coliseum or on the moon,” but Carroll looked like a man who had been shaken to his core by the defeat.
“I was looking at the color red on this [tablecloth] and it just looked different to me today,” a dejected Carroll said in his postgame press conference. “Things have always been the same here and it looked and felt different today.”
An aura of invincibility was shattered that day for the Trojans. There had been an assumption that even the clumsiest efforts by USC would eventually be salvaged, especially at home.
But the sleepwalking Trojans were in for a rude awakening.
“It was not about Stanford tonight,” Jackson said after the game. “It was about us.”
Those words should stay in the mind of any fan who thinks that USC’s recent woes will be solved by playing at home. The Trojans still have plenty of woes, and if the contest against Oregon State was any indicator, teams won’t simply roll over for USC anymore.
Some fans are optimistic about a strong finish given Carroll’s undefeated record in November and in homecoming games. But as the loss to Stanford taught us, such trends are not absolute rules.
College football teams operate on a week-to-week basis, frequently acting independently of their most recent game. How else do you explain Oregon’s effort against USC and subsequent stomping by Stanford?
If the Trojans have anything going for them, it’s that they won’t be caught by surprise again. Stanford is the new “it” team in the Pac-10 with the touted backfield of senior running back Toby Gerhart and freshman quarterback Andrew Luck.
USC shouldn’t need a reminder about fixing its own problems after its last four performances. With the way Stanford has played lately, the Trojans need to prove they have learned something since the last time the Cardinal came to the Coliseum.
But at least no one is accusing of the Trojans of being the best team ever this time.
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