As challenges loom, Cal is a must-win test


When I wrote my last column, USC was 4-0. Undefeated. The fans were happy.

Now, just two weeks later, USC is 4-2, the Trojans having lost two consecutive games for the first time since 2001. The fans, as you might guess, are not happy.

What’s changed?

Two things: one, a sad-but-true realization and an incredible stroke of bad luck. Let’s break it down.

First, as was probably under-reported earlier this year, these Trojans have not put together a complete performance all season.

By complete, I mean the offense, defense and special teams all playing above average.

And by never, I mean never — not in spring practice, not in summer workouts and not in fall camp. In fact, USC’s best overall day since Lane Kiffin and most of his coaching staff arrived in January was probably Saturday’s game against Stanford.

Yes, the Trojans lost that game. No, I am not joking.

But you have to give it to Kiffin and his team, who have responded well to adversity this week in practice. Those are my words, not those of anybody on the team — although they agree.

“I don’t think you can tell, off of them, whether we won or lost the game,” Kiffin said Wednesday when asked to evaluate his team’s feelings at this point in the season. “I don’t think they’re any different in practice, which is the same the week before [concerning their morale], and now you can’t go undefeated, you lost to Washington at home in the last second. ”

He continued, saying this week’s packed injury report is much more of a concern to him than anything that happened last week.

“I’m not worried about that,” he said. “I’m much more worried about who is going to be there to play Saturday.”

That brings me to my next point. A typical excuse for underachieving teams is that they have been ravaged by injuries.

Up until this week, you couldn’t say that for this USC team. This is the first week that a substantial amount of key players look like questionable bets to play on Saturday.

But I’m not sure I’d call them “underachieving” either.

Did the losses to Stanford and Washington really scream that fateful word — “upset?”

You don’t have to answer that. I’ll tell you one thing, though: They did scream “unlucky.”

And that’s the second thing. Both losses were extremely unlucky. There are all kinds of crazy statistics about just how abnormal the two consecutive last-play losses were.

“It’s very unusual,” Kiffin said earlier this week. “We were talking today and USC has played football for more than 100 years and there have been four games in 100 years, prior to these last two weeks, that USC has lost on the last play of the game. Four in 100 years, and now we’ve done it twice in seven days,”Kiffin said.

“That’s a record that we didn’t really want to break or be a part of. The fact is that we should learn from it and know that feeling and how it is, and have a feeling for it never happening again, so when we’re in those situations, we change one thing and we’re sitting here completely different.”

But they’re not, of course. And now questions are starting to float in about whether Kiffin’s debut season will end up resembling his predecessor’s.

Remember, former USC coach Pete Carroll’s 2001 squad finished 6-6.

“It feels different because the expectations are so much higher,” Kiffin said when asked to compare 2010 with 2001. Kiffin was an assistant on that team.

“I know we’re better. We were 2-5 to start that year. This is a better team with higher expectations, so it feels a lot different.”

He’s right. It feels different. And so far, it’s been different. But a loss Saturday to Cal could end up making the two seasons feel awfully alike.

And, with Oregon the next team awaiting the Trojans after a bye week, Cal looks an awful lot like a must-win game.

Otherwise, 4-4 is well within reach.

“Looking Past the X’s and O’s” runs every other Friday. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Pedro at pmoura@usc.edu.