Can the Trojans continue to believe?

You’ve got to believe!”

No resistance · Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor jumps over a pile of Cardinal and Trojan players for a 1-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Stanford kicked a last-second field goal as the Trojans lost on the final play for the second week in a row. - Dieuwertje Kast| Daily Trojan

USC sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley used these words to urge his offense on, not willing to let the Trojans give in as they trailed Stanford late in the game.

The Trojans didn’t. They believed. They fought. They did all they could, only to come up short once again.

USC lost for the second straight week in the same gut wrenching way. Nate Whitaker’s 30-yard field goal sailed through the uprights as time expired, ensuring both a 37-35 Stanford win and another week of USC wondering what could have been.

“You’ve got to believe!”

Barkley told reporters about his motivational words as he stood bleary-eyed and stone-faced. He got his team to believe Saturday night; there’s no doubt.

But will it continue to?

USC’s confidence has been fragile since the season began. With the sanctions and coaching changes, it was already going to be a challenge to keep the Trojans mentally prepared week in and week out.

Piling on two consecutive emotionally debilitating losses only makes it more dangerous. The Trojans now find themselves on a tipping point where one side leads to a respectable season under unfortunate circumstances and the other leads to complete deterioration.

How will the Trojans continue to believe?

“It just stings because — for me at least, and for a lot of our team — we were the highest of highs that we had been all year,” Barkley said. “And then it just shoots right back down to the lowest of lows.”

The Trojans’ greatest challenge moving forward will not be Oregon or Arizona, but themselves. How the Trojans handle these emotional letdowns and that empty feeling in their gut will define this season.

“It just feels sick,” Barkley said.

The veteran players are going to be fine. They’re mature enough to know these games happen and wise enough to have short-term memories.

“I know there’s a lot of guys that are hanging their heads in there, a lot of the younger guys,” redshirt junior linebacker Chris Galippo said. “You’ve just got to understand that it’s a game and it’s a lot more than just wins and losses.

“A lot of times it’s just about how you respond.”

How the less-experienced Trojans react is now of greatest concern. They didn’t come to USC to lose to Washington and Stanford. They didn’t sign up to be sanctioned underdogs. What’s to stop them from coasting through the rest of a season that seems futile at times?

USC’s leaders must make sure that doesn’t happen. There is hope at least. After all, the Trojans were able to pick themselves up following the Washington loss in the face of all the naysayers.

“I was pleased by the way the team responded,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “This was a week where every time they picked up an article it was about ‘The USC dynasty is over’ and ‘It’s going to take 10 years to come back.’”

Kiffin understands the fragility of his players’ mindset after games like this, and he makes it a point not too be too hard on them.

“You’ve got to be careful about getting on kids after a game like that,” Kiffin said. “Where one play [happens differently] and you guys are all sitting here and saying, ‘Ah, what an unbelievable job.’”

True, USC deserves credit. It could’ve simply folded this week, much like it did last year when the game got tough against Stanford. But it didn’t. The Trojans believed.

The Trojans showed no signs of quitting Saturday night. Take freshman wide receiver Robert Woods, for example.

I’m not talking about his accomplished receiving night of 224 yards and three touchdowns. I’m talking about how coaches had to literally take away his helmet so that he would take a breather on special teams.

Then there was redshirt junior linebacker Shane Horton, who stepped in for injured senior linebacker Malcolm Smith to lead the team with 10 total tackles.

“There was no question about effort,” Barkley said.

If a few plays had gone differently, the Trojans could be 6-0 right now. These heartbreaking losses are surely learning experiences at the very least.

“We’re growing,” Horton said.

They might be, but there has to be a limit. How many more losses like this can the Trojans take before they stop believing?  

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