A week after getting upended in Seattle, the Trojans were supposed to return to the Coliseum and take their frustration out on Washington State like a drunken stepfather.
This one was supposed to be ugly. The 45.5-point spread was more of a generous suggestion for the Trojan offense, which ripped the lowly Cougars for 69 points last season.
When it was all said and done Saturday night, it most definitely was ugly, but not quite in the way USC had hoped.
After jumping out to a 20-0 first-quarter lead, the Trojan offense stalled, the penalty yards started piling up and the final 27-6 score was way too close for a Washington State team that needed overtime to defeat Southern Methodist last week.
So what does it mean? Plainly and simply, this USC team has a lot of problems to work out. For all its five-star talent and lopsided depth, there is great cause for concern for USC going forward.
“The way I look at this game, it’s great to win, it’s fun to win at the Coliseum, but we’ve got a lot of work to do,” coach Pete Carroll said. “It just was not at all the kind of satisfying win we’d like to have.”
And it wasn’t just a few bad breaks here and there. After the first quarter, the Trojans lost their rhythm and their focus across the board, putting up two goose eggs offensively in the second and third quarter before finally finding the end zone one last time in the fourth quarter.
The most glaring dilemma taken from the win was that the Trojans did not learn from the mistakes that cost them an undefeated season last week. Their performance in the penalty department only got worse — they racked up 115 yards on 13 yellow flags, almost all of which killed drives and eliminated momentum.
It was not the kind of outing USC fans expected, nor the kind the players expected from themselves.
“We had 13 penalties overall, so I think when we have those numbers we can always be playing better,” freshman quarterback Matt Barkley said. “We’re gonna look back at the tape tomorrow … and see what can get corrected, but I do believe we can play better than we did tonight.”
As Carroll put it, “It’s not stuff that’s indicative of playing good football.”
Granted, some of the penalties USC was flagged for were awful calls, particularly a holding call on redshirt junior receiver Damian Williams that negated part of a long junior Joe McKnight run.
“I’ll challenge half of those calls,” Carroll said of the penalties called on his team, adding, “I thought Damian’s block downfield on Joe’s big run was a fantastic block. ”
Carroll still recognized the magnitude of the penalty problem, but not exactly with urgency.
“We need to start practicing now and clean some things up,” he said. “We certainly can give a game away playing like that, so that’s the part we have to get rid of.”
Another aspect the Trojans failed to improve much upon was third-down conversions. After failing to convert a single third-down last week, the Trojans mustered only three in nine tries Saturday, and this against one of the worst passing defenses in the country.
“We have to get right and we’ve got to keep working at it,” Carroll said. “There’s just a lot of room for improvement.”
Red zone scoring was also a problem. The Trojans were stopped twice on fourth down inside Washington State’s 2-yard line, failing to put any points on the board and allowing the Cougars to hang around.
Then there were the fumbles. USC put the ball on the ground three times, losing two of them — one by Williams after a reception and the other by redshirt sophomore quarterback Aaron Corp while on backup duties.
These are problems the Trojans vowed to fix. These are issues they promised never to repeat. But after one week, the jury is still out on how capable this USC team is of cleaning up its mishaps.
After the game, the talk was already turning to next week, when the Trojans travel to Berkeley to face Cal in game that has lost a bit of its value after the Golden Bears suffered a 42-3 beating from Oregon Saturday. No matter how bad Cal looked against the Ducks, USC must fix the mistakes they have failed to correct in the last two weeks or it will be Washington all over again.
On that note, a reporter asked redshirt junior linebacker Michael Morgan what he thought of Cal’s loss to Oregon.
“Don’t take anything lightly I guess — play everybody,” Morgan said.
Meanwhile, Barkley, who was sitting next to Morgan at the press conference, muttered under his breath, “We already learned that one.”
After the Trojans’ lackluster display Saturday against the Cougars, I’m not sure they have.
“Middle Ground” runs Mondays.