USC mounted an early 10-0 lead at Washington last Saturday and prevailed to improve its overall record to 5-1 at the midway point of the season.
But as the Trojans trotted off a damp CenturyLink Field in Seattle, the overwhelming mood was that of frustration. They didn’t score enough — held without a point in the second half. They committed far too many penalties. And hey, what’s up with Matt Barkley?
The tone from fans and others who follow the program suggested something went drastically wrong in the Emerald City, but no, no, the Trojans did pull off the win — their third straight.
“This isn’t about anybody’s numbers or Heisman or any of that,” USC coach Lane Kiffin reminded everyone during his post-game news conference. “This is about winning games.”
Sure it is. That, of course, is obvious. But that’s hardly the whole picture.
Fans are growing increasingly frustrated each week — even with the winning, and, really, they deserve to be.
On one Rivals.com message board: “Does anyone truly think [Lane Kiffin] is a good play caller?”
Another added: “This is what I see: an offense that seems to try to move while the hand brake is on, and the hand on the hand brake is the coach.”
USC might still be going 60 miles per hour, but these Trojans were supposed to be cruising at 90, right?
In the months leading up to the season, we were told by Kiffin this team had the “perfect Trojan” in Barkley under center. This squad had the eventual “best ever” at wide receiver in sophomore Marqise Lee. This wasn’t endless media speculation; these definitive declarations came directly from the mouth of the coach, the head of the program.
Internally, the bar was set quite high. The athletic department launched a “We Play” campaign, intended to highlight a number of goals for the upcoming year such as playing for keeps, playing to dominate and playing to finish.
USC plopped a billboard with Barkley on it in Westwood, just a couple blocks from the campus of crosstown rival UCLA.
Most of all, USC talked about “unfinished business,” using the words uttered by the senior signal caller during his announcement to return to school as a catchphrase for T-shirts, wristbands and other merchandise — anything to make a buck.
As much as Kiffin, his coaching staff and his players have referenced “prep, not hype” — a slogan that has been painted on the sidelines at Howard Jones Field since spring practice — the hype around the program for the last 10 months has been unparalleled.
And for what? To sell a couple extra tickets?
Kiffin’s predecessor, Pete Carroll, who coached the Trojans from 2001-09, excelled in terms of channeling expectations. Even with people around Los Angeles and around the sport fixated on the Trojans, the internal goal always remained: to own the Rose Bowl.
Owning the Rose Bowl was twofold. It involved winning the conference title to earn a spot in the Rose Bowl Game on Jan. 1 and beating UCLA, which plays its home games in the Rose Bowl stadium. Both were clear and simple objectives, and USC exercised quite a bit of control in achieving them by just winning the contests on the schedule. In fact, Al Davis’ “just win, baby” mantra would have fit the program quite nicely.
Instead, USC, in 2012, watched the expectations grow like wildfire. And if anything, it just added fuel.
It scripted the narrative of finishing business, implying a grand finale in South Beach by securing a bid to the BCS national championship game at Sun Life Stadium near Miami. It talked about amassing style points.
“There is a showtime element,” Kiffin said about playing in Los Angeles on the eve of the season. “There is a style factor to it.”
The problem lies in that these standards hardly leave any room for error. Lose once and your national championship hopes suffer rather substantially. Lose again and they’re gone.
Win only by a touchdown or two and the reaction becomes: That’s all?
Playing for the BCS title game places a team at the mercy of pollsters and computer rankings — it has to pass the eye test or fit a mathematical formula just right. In playing for the Rose Bowl, it needs to be atop the Pac-12 standings. Subjectivity dictates the former. Wins and losses dictate the latter.
Of course, a national championship remains the foremost goal, but why add the extra attention? Why make it so obvious?
USC, at present, faces a situation in which it’s expected to win each week and win decisively, as if the team is part of some sort of beauty pageant.
Heightened expectations, of course, are a part of college football. Carroll’s teams still dealt with them. And any team ranked in the top 10 and any program carrying a pedigree similar to that of USC faces them. But those expectations are usually external. They come from boosters or commentators.
In this instance, comparatively, USC set the expectations: finishing its business. And darn it, it was going to look good doing so.
The problem is, right now, this team doesn’t look all that good. No wonder everyone around Los Angeles is so grumpy.
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