Stanford game a fork in the road for Trojans

Gen. George S. Patton, who led U.S. forces during World War II, experienced some crushing defeats in his career. His ability to recover after a loss, however, made him an icon of military leadership.

“Success is how high you bounce after you hit the bottom,” Patton once said.

During the last nine years, USC built a football dynasty on a similar principle.

The Trojans haven’t lost two games in a row since 2001, when they fell to Stanford and Washington in consecutive weeks. Sound familiar?

USC heads into Saturday’s game unranked and reeling from last week’s upset at the hands of the Washington Huskies.

Now, the Trojans will head north to take on No. 16 Stanford, a team that handed them an embarrassing 55-21 loss on Homecoming last year.

This looks to be a bad matchup for the Trojans. USC’s pass defense, ranked 116th in the nation out of 120 teams, will square off against Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck, who leads the conference in total offense.

A year ago, the Trojans struggled against Stanford’s physical style of play, surrendering 325 rushing yards and five touchdowns on the ground.

Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart is gone from the Cardinal backfield, but Stanford still ranks 23rd in the nation in rushing.

Add to that the Trojans’ struggles with penalties and special teams in recent weeks, and the situation appears bleak for the former kings of the Pac-10.

The Las Vegas odds makers list Stanford as 10-point favorites, a far cry from three years ago when the Cardinal entered the Coliseum as 41-point underdogs.

A USC loss this weekend wouldn’t come as a shock to most.

The excuses are readily available and, in many ways, valid: NCAA sanctions that removed the possibility of a bowl game, transfers and scholarship reductions that limit the team’s depth, a new head coach implementing his schemes and his way of doing things, and a particularly difficult batch of Pac-10 opponents.

The belief in some circles is that, with no bowl game to play for, this USC team could fade down the stretch against a string of talented conference foes.

Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated wrote this week that “in the increasingly deep and quarterback-heavy Pac-10 … USC will finish no higher than seventh.”

Saturday’s game, then, represents more than a midseason showdown between two conference rivals.

This is an opportunity for the 2010 Trojans to define themselves.

A victory this Saturday in Palo Alto would send a message to the rest of the conference that, although USC football is down, it’s definitely not out.

A triumph over a ranked foe would show the nation that, despite the sanctions, this season still means something to this squad.

A win on the road could refuel the Trojans with a belief that, no matter how difficult their schedule might be, they still have the talent to play with anyone in the country.

Because if not now, then when?

The schedule doesn’t get any easier after Saturday. Although the Trojans return home next week to begin a three-game homestand, the Coliseum is no longer a place feared by opponents.

Home losses to Stanford, Arizona and Washington in the last two years have removed some of the stadium’s mystique.

Of the Trojans’ seven remaining games, none can be considered an automatic “W.” Even UCLA, which got off to a rough start, has won three straight games, including two over then-top-25 teams.

With no let-up in sight, a loss this weekend could send the Trojans into a tailspin.

A losing record, a finish in the bottom half of the conference, the unofficial end to a dynasty — these all have the potential of being the story of this year’s team.

Like the famous Dylan Thomas poem, the message to USC is one of seizing the moment: “Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

The Trojans could go down as a team that just had too much to overcome.

Or, like Patton, they could bounce back.

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