Understand this: Kickoff between USC and Washington was scheduled for 12:45 p.m. It was in Los Angeles. Weather reports indicated rain was on the horizon.
None of those circumstances exactly forecasted a strong turnout from the Trojan faithful, as later indicated by the announced attendance of 64,576 — the lowest number for a homecoming game for USC in a decade.
If told beforehand USC wouldn’t crack at least 70,000, you likely wouldn’t have flinched. It wouldn’t have moved the needle much. You’d shrug, move on and mutter, “L.A. fans” or something along that line.
Barring some very strange twist, USC’s average attendance this season will be the lowest since 2002, no matter how many fans file through the gates for the Trojans’ season finale in two weeks against UCLA on Nov. 26.
Through six games this season, the average stands at 71,673. Provided somewhere near 90,000 fans show up against the Bruins, that number will move up, albeit rather gradually. It won’t better last season’s mark of 79,907 per contest.
With the Trojans serving the second year of a two-year postseason ban, an attendance drop on some level is to be expected. Eleven losses over the course of the last three seasons can do that to a program accustomed to Rose Bowls and national championships.
But that only makes the current circumstances all the more disappointing.
“If it wasn’t raining, I consider this a sold-out game,” sophomore cornerback Nickell Robey said. “[A sellout] lets us know we’re doing great things.”
In several respects, USC is achieving great things in spite of several obstacles. These current players, many freshmen and sophomores, were never dealt a favorable hand.
But for this season anyway, there are only a handful of teams in the country that can claim to be much better than USC, ranked No. 18 in the recently released Associated Press top-25 poll. The Trojans boast two players in junior quarterback Matt Barkley and sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods, who under normal conditions would garner consideration for the Heisman Trophy. Its defense is unquestionably its best since its Sports Illustrated-posing linebacker trio Brian Cushing, Clay Matthews and Rey Maualuga sported the cardinal and gold. Heck, even USC coach Lane Kiffin is being showered with praise in some circles.
There are plenty of feel-good stories as well: a starting tailback that was academically ineligible a season ago, a walk-on punter who outgained Washington on the ground in the first half. Most of all: a team that is winning and winning convincingly. Over the last two weeks, USC has upended the Huskies and Colorado by 48 points.
It begs the question: Where is everybody?
In recent years, most fans have done their fair share of complaining. They have continuously reminisced about Pete Carroll, holding Kiffin to that same lofty standard. They insisted the Tampa-2 defensive scheme couldn’t work, at least not on the college level.
By in large, USC has answered most of the critics this season, on average, winning by a 10-point margin through 10 games this season.
But fans can’t have it both ways. Most of this team’s issues have been addressed. There have been several doubts whether Kiffin and his staff were capable of clearing the metaphorical clouds that hover above the program — his analogy, not mine.
But as the second-year coach hinted at, those clouds are shifting.
“Just keep trying to move those clouds away,” Kiffin said. “A couple went away today. We’ll just keep trying to move them out of the sky and get some sun around here.”
It’s, in part, the problem with playing in Los Angeles. Fans want to watch teams that not only win but amass style points. For whatever reason, they’re not buying what USC is selling.
It’s not necessarily better across town either. UCLA, in five games at the Rose Bowl which seats over 90,000, is averaging just 56,505 per contest. But that’s the standard, whether that is fair or unfair.
For USC at least, 2012 could prove drastically different, depending on how many draft-eligible juniors opt to declare for the NFL draft.
So for now, with two games left, enjoy this team, because we don’t know how much longer this will last. The clouds might not keep moving.
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