The horde of recruits had to be confused. Maybe everyone had mistakenly entered the wrong locker room.
No, this had to be it. There were USC logos and colors plastered everywhere, but this was a far cry from the fun-loving, raucous atmosphere that they had heard so much about.
This subdued scene wasn’t what the potential future Trojans had envisioned — not that anyone had reason to suspect a party following Saturday’s embarrassment against Stanford.
But as players and coaches floated around, it was undeniable that everyone was looking at a program in crisis.
The postgame locker room usually feels like a grand reunion. On Saturday, everyone languished as though there had been a death in the family.
“I’m not of a clear mind right now,” USC coach Pete Carroll said with a blank expression. “I’m not really sure how to deal with this.”
Indeed, the Trojans are in a land largely foreign to them. In the past three weeks, the Trojans have been outscored 111-55 by their opponents. They have gone from national championship outsiders to potential Sun Bowl invitees in less than a month.
Nearly every streak or staple of the program once thought to be invincible has wilted and died this year. There will be no eighth Pac-10 title, no BCS bowl, no top-five finish.
“To be a senior and leave a legacy like this is sickening,” said senior safety Taylor Mays, who was expected to be the face of the Trojans this year.
This team’s legacy is still undetermined with two games left, but more history is being etched into stone with each loss. But the key to salvaging what’s left of the season may be determining what the team’s true identity is.
Carroll’s previous teams all had clear images of themselves that were reinforced by their performances on the field. Last year’s USC squad was perhaps the best example — an aggressive defense that, save for one game, repeatedly willed the team to victory regardless of circumstance.
Trying to get a hold of the identity of the 2009 Trojans has been more difficult than tallying all the records set against them.
It appeared at first as though the legacy of defensive units capable of carrying the Trojans as far as they needed to go would remain. At one point in the middle of the season, the defense was actually outpacing last year’s unit in almost every statistical category.
But those days seem so far off now that it feels almost like a different era.
The Trojans defense has been so maligned that it may become the eventual story of the season. The game against Notre Dame may be the hinge on which the season turned, as USC gave up its first (but certainly not last) touchdown pass of the season.
From that point on, the Trojans’ offense frequently had to keep pace with the other team in frantic shootouts. And when it stumbled, things turned ugly.
It made everyone wonder what happened to the defense and team we thought we knew.
“I think we know who we want to be and who we represent,” Mays said. “We just have to find it, because this isn’t us.”
He could have fooled me. Whatever the Trojans see themselves as, an entirely different picture is appearing on the field.
The Trojans’ confused identity also applies to freshman quarterback Matt Barkley, whom fans were eager to make the face of the team since he was named the starter. Carroll was just as culpable in parading Barkley around, saying at one point that Barkley was playing as well as any quarterback that had recently come through USC.
The act of pigskin hubris drew puzzled looks at the time and now seems so ridiculous that it is hardly worth examining. Barkley has embraced the position and all it entails to the best of his ability, but he remains a freshman quarterback playing at the highest level of college football.
If a team has to take all of its cues from someone still finding his own way, it will falter more than once.
“This isn’t what we’ve really grown up watching,” Barkley said after Saturday’s game.
Barkley has not even been in the program for a full season but can already tell something is amiss with the team’s identity. For so long, USC’s image was derived from winning.
Now, it will have to establish something outside of that formula.
With two regular season games and a bowl game remaining, USC has the chance to right the ship to the best of its abilities. If it does, the salvaging effort may be the team’s legacy, which hardly seems appealing to players accustomed to Rose Bowls and conference championships.
But better to have an imperfect identity than none at all.
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