Cardinal will be no picnic for USC

Usually schools schedule a cupcake during Homecoming.

Usually they make sure the cupcake is light (healthy is all the rage these days), loaded with creamy frosting and decorated with some celebratory sprinkles.

Missing piece · Having tight end Anthony McCoy back from injury lessens USC’s chances of getting upended by Stanford at home again. - Dieuwertje Kast | Daily Trojan

Missing piece · Having tight end Anthony McCoy back from injury lessens USC’s chances of getting upended by Stanford at home again. - Dieuwertje Kast | Daily Trojan

Usually, the cupcake is devoured before the main course is served and by the time dessert rolls around, the alumni are left to feast on the remaining crumbs.

But, unless you’ve been stalking Sarah Palin from eastern Russia for the past three months, you know that this season isn’t usual.

USC is in the midst of its longest span of mediocre play since the Diamondbacks last won the World Series and has absolutely no chance of appearing in the BCS title game, even with three games left.

What’s more is that the opponent coming in Saturday is a raspberry cupcake with mayonnaise frosting and thorns for sprinkles — in other words, it’s not a scrumptious treat.

Stanford is coming off a shootout win over Pac-10 leader Oregon, a team that itself was coming off an earth-shattering stomping of the previously unstomp-able Trojans. The Cardinal also won the last time it visited the Coliseum in 2007, when they staged one of the greatest upsets of all-time by beating a 41-point favorite USC.

It’s not inconceivable that Stanford will come in Saturday and beat the “struggling” Trojans again.

Indeed, much of the blame for USC’s lackluster play over the past month has been attributed to the defense and to superhuman freshman quarterback Matt Barkley getting kicked out of the Justice League.

This is rightfully so. The defense, which lost eight starters from last season, has given up 119 points in the last four games and has more holes than the Augusta National Golf Club.

Likewise, while Barkley enjoyed success during his first four games, if you’ve watched him over the past month, you’d agree he looks more uncomfortable. In the last game against an inferior Arizona State squad, Barkley went 7-for-22 for 112 yards in a game neither team looked like they wanted to win.

However, two areas have killed USC more than the defense and Barkley’s average play. They have slid under the radar and USC needs to fix them this weekend if it doesn’t want to be embarrassed by Gerhart and the Trees.

The first area is the running game. Yes, USC has become known as Tailback U for its ability to take a running back and make him into a star. Despite senior Stafon Johnson’s injury, the Trojans still have the talent at the position.

Yet, the running game has stalled more than a kid learning to drive stick-shift. USC has averaged only 158.5 yards and 1.25 touchdowns per game on the ground over the past month, while it boasted numbers of 208 and 2.6 in the first five games.

It’s the running game that lifted the weight off Barkley’s shoulders. Whenever USC needed a big play, it would turn to Joe McKnight, Johnson, Allen Bradford or Stanley Havili.

Barkley could focus on playing within himself. Like it or not, he took the Kyle Orton approach the first half of the season by playing not to lose the game. He was conservative and it worked.

Now that the running game has stalled, Barkley has tried to lift the burden onto his shoulders, but they aren’t broad enough yet. This is where the second X-factor for USC comes in: senior tight end Anthony McCoy, who’s scheduled to play Saturday.

McCoy has been out virtually since the Notre Dame game (he played, albeit with an injured ankle, against Oregon State), and that’s about when USC started to sputter. His run-blocking and receiving ability have been missed greatly by the Trojans and especially Barkley, who needs McCoy out there. Even though he’s missed almost three games, McCoy is still the third leading receiver on the team, averaging an absurd 23.4 yards per catch.

It’s his big-play ability that has opened up passing lanes for Barkley, and without McCoy, the offense has been lost. The running game can’t find any holes to run through and the tight ends have caught just three passes in the last three games.

It’s obvious that Barkley needs McCoy and McCoy needs Barkley. The senior tight end has already surpassed his receiving yard total from last season, when he was the starting tight end and had a more experienced quarterback.

The Trojans need the running game to get going and get McCoy back on the field if they want to avoid another embarrassing loss.

USC has shown it can win when the defense plays poorly (see Notre Dame) and when Barkley isn’t forced to make plays (see Ohio State). Yet, as it’s shown in the past month, it can barely float when the running game stalls and when McCoy is out.

Those things need to show up if the Trojans want to have their cake and eat it, too.

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