As the USC players pushed their way through the throng of Cardinal fans on the Stanford Stadium field after the clock hit 0:00 Saturday night, the thousands of Trojan fans who made the trek north to Palo Alto were racing their way to the parking lot as quickly as they could.
Each group was most likely thinking the same thing: How could this happen?
This 2012 version was supposed to be the best team in the nation, the team to put USC back atop its perch. But on that night, USC looked like anything but. The supposedly best offense in college football was beaten down, held to just 14 points and shut out in the second half. A loss like this was unheard of.
Or was it?
As many have correctly pointed out, slip-ups like this have become the norm for top-ranked USC teams. Very rarely do teams go undefeated, and USC, highly-touted though they may be, is no different.
Think back to 2003, when the No. 3 Trojans suffered a week-four loss to California. Or in 2006, when a pair of upsets at Oregon State and UCLA knocked them out of the BCS national title game. The next season, USC was at the receiving end of one of the biggest upsets in college football history when the team lost at home to a struggling Stanford team in former Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh’s first season.
But it doesn’t stop there. In 2008, USC again lost at Oregon State, its lone blemish that season. And last season, the stunner came in Tempe when the team lost to a 6-7 Arizona State squad.
And what do these teams all have in common? With the exception of last year’s team, which was ineligible to compete in a bowl game, each of the teams that suffered unexpected losses bounced back to win the Rose Bowl. And last season, the Trojans finished ranked No. 6 in the final Associated Press top-25 poll.
The point of all this is simple: One loss does not have to derail a season. Troy is in peril right now. Everyone is still in a state of shock. But the key is that the people who matter, the players and the coaches, snap out of that haze and refocus in a hurry.
In the past, they have done just that. Former coach Pete Carroll’s success is well documented. But current coach Lane Kiffin, who was part of Carroll’s staff, showed resilience last season in recovering from the early season loss to the Sun Devils. After stumbling through an uninspiring win at home to lowly Arizona, the team rattled off impressive road victories at California and Notre Dame, with both its offense and defense clearly finding their stride after looking inept against Arizona State.
And all this is not taking into consideration the determination of senior quarterback Matt Barkley. Already one of the all-time Trojan greats, Barkley was one of the main reasons the experts picked USC to run the table. Now, after one of the worst games of his career, it will have to be the driving force to right the ship after such a disappointing letdown.
One of the cruxes going into this season was the perceived small margin for error USC had. That margin is now considerably even smaller. And with several Pac-12 teams exceeding preseason expectations, another loss seems like a more imminent threat. But the tough schedule also provides an opportunity for the team to add marquee victories to its BCS resume, as well as regain its confidence when it has been understandably shaken.
Since declaring they had “unfinished business,” Barkley and his teammates have planned on having the perfect season, which included going undefeated en route to the national championship. Now, the plan has changed, but the motivation doesn’t have to. This team still has business to take care of. Every goal set out at the beginning of the season is still attainable, albeit the challenges might now be a little steeper.
But the questions still linger: Will the offensive line improve? Was Barkley merely the victim of a bad night or is it something more? Can the running game re-establish itself after being rendered insignificant?
Time will tell whether or not the Trojans can correct these mistakes. But fans should take comfort in knowing that the program is in the right hands to recover from such a crushing blow.
And come Saturday, against a Cal team fresh off a near upset at Ohio State, we should see answers to these questions.
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