PALO ALTO, Calif. — Ah, that looked like a USC team of yesteryear, didn’t it?
The Trojans were ranked in the top five. They were beginning Pac-12 play on the road. They were more than a touchdown favorite.
So, naturally, they laid an egg.
Yup, USC again stumbled kicking off its conference slate, this time by a final score of 21-14 to Stanford.
Counting Saturday night’s defeat, the No. 13 Trojans have now lost four of their last five Pac-12/Pac-10 road openers. In Pete Carroll-esque fashion, the team headed north to the Bay Area and left reeling after dropping a game they were pegged to win.
Gone is USC’s hope of an undefeated finish and a clear path to Miami for the BCS national championship game. Gone is Matt Barkley’s status as the Heisman Trophy frontrunner. Gone, in several respects, is the dream season.
Business, still, is very much unfinished.
A conference opener yet again proved to be rather sobering for a fan base and a team fixated on South Beach. Less than a month in, a season which once looked so promising now appears headed for some sort of metaphorical guillotine.
But at the center of the Trojans’ latest mishap was a void, and the void was context. What does this mean? What must USC and coach Lane Kiffin do in order to ascend toward the top of the national ladder?
It’s a formidable climb, yes, but hardly an impossible one. It’s September, I should point out. Nine games — or perhaps even 10, including the Pac-12 title game — remain on the schedule. And college football, after all, is too nuanced, too unpredictable to make definitive statements in week three.
Let’s slow down, please.
Here’s what we know: USC is far from an elite team at the moment.
How did Kiffin’s bunch look up on the Farm? The report card is lined in red: They were stagnant, inefficient, ineffective, distracted, unprepared and mostly overwhelmed.
Unlike past openers, the Trojans were outplayed soundly by a superior opponent — even though Stanford was without former All-American quarterback Andrew Luck under center. They were outgained in total yards 417 to 280. When it came to the running game, USC finished with 26 yards on 28 carries — 0.9 yards per attempt — despite boasting two returning 1,000-yard rushers. On third downs, they failed to convert 12 out of 13 times.
Where does the blame lie? The coaching staff, the offensive line and senior quarterback Matt Barkley all serve as a logical landing spot. But it’s inconclusive. Blame falls at the feet of nearly everyone in the aftermath of another unsettling upset.
There were questionable coaching decisions. Carrying a 14-7 lead into the third quarter, USC drove to the Stanford 13-yard line. But on fourth down, instead of trying to kick a field goal, which wouldn’t have amounted to much more than a typical extra-point attempt, Kiffin sent out the field-goal unit, along with Barkley.
The senior signal caller then attempted a fake to Alex Wood, a walk-on kicker of all people, and threw a pass to redshirt freshman fullback Soma Vainuku in the back of the end zone — a pass which was nearly caught before being punched out at the last second. Momentum, if there was any, was gone and so was the chance to build a late two-possession lead.
Similarly head scratching, in the fourth quarter, with less than a minute remaining and trailing by seven points, USC, with the ball at the Stanford 46-yard line, opted for a running play with senior tailback Curtis McNeal that yielded a loss of two yards. And the clock kept ticking.
The offensive line, which gave up eight sacks a year ago and tied for fewest in the country, has already surrendered seven through three games in 2012, including four against the Cardinal.
Not to mention, Barkley failed to throw a single touchdown pass in a game for the first time since a November 2010 loss at Oregon State when he missed the second half because of an ankle injury. It was also the first time he completed less than 50 percent of his passes in a game since his freshman season.
“I’m surprised we were held to 14 points,” Kiffin said during his post-game press conference at Stanford Stadium. “At the same time, I’m not surprised because I know what happened out there and why it happened.”
Yes, senior center Khaled Holmes was out, and so was sophomore kicker Andre Heidari — two of the Trojans’ most valued players.
But it’s hard to gloss over the obvious: The stage looked all too big for USC on Saturday night. Tasked with playing perfect, the undertaking looked too much for Kiffin, too much for Barkley and too much for just about everyone. The group looked like a team in over its head. And much like a year ago, when it fell at Arizona State by three touchdowns in late September, it’ll look to bounce back from another early-season loss.
To suggest there is plenty of season left is true. USC will have a shot to play its way back into the national title race, of course. But for now, it has to get better.
“I’d say that would be our worst offensive performance that I’ve been a part of in our nine years here, as far as physical style,” Kiffin admitted during his Sunday night teleconference with reporters.
Seemingly everything must be fixed. And for USC, which was certainly knocked in the chin by the Cardinal, it might be time to just get back to the basics.
Plenty needs mending.
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