More than an hour after USC’s triple-overtime defeat against Stanford on Oct. 29, senior defensive tackle Christian Tupou lingered around an empty Trojans’ locker room.
As he put on his street clothes and finally headed out into the Los Angeles night, USC’s venerable defensive leader did something few are prone to do following a heartbreaking loss. He flashed a wide grin as if to let everyone around him know that everything would be all right.
“They’re no Lombardi speeches necessary,” Tupou said. “If you’re not excited to play another game there’s something wrong with you.”
Over the last 23 games, this Trojan football team has played with that mentality and that appreciation every snap.
In wins and in losses, in good times and in bad, in the Coliseum or in Notre Dame Stadium, the message hasn’t wavered: Continue to move the dark clouds that have hovered since NCAA sanctions were imposed in June 2010.
Though it’s been implied that all this team can play for these last two years is pride because of the postseason ban, I beg to differ.
Those dark clouds can’t be moved simply by playing the “we are all in this together” card. It’s a start, but it takes more than a simple glib mantra to change the culture.
This team is playing for respect, they are playing to put this program back among the elite, they are playing to remind people that tradition doesn’t just fade away in the face of adversity.
So in all honesty, Saturday’s monumental showdown with No. 4 Oregon at Autzen Stadium is more than just an opportunity to play the underdog role. Sure, an upset against a team who still has a chance to go to the BCS National Championship Game would make for a Hollywood-esque story.
But Saturday’s game presents something much greater.
It’s a chance to erase two years of pain, of frustration, of being written off.
It’s a chance on national television to give an entire country of nay-sayers a big “How do you like them apples?” from the all but forgotten corner of the college football landscape.
Or as sophomore cornerback Nickell Robey put it,“[A win] would mean USC is back, it’s as simple as that.”
So why not now for the Trojans?
Why can’t this game be the culmination of a two-year journey down the path of restoration?
The numbers suggest Oregon isn’t that different from the high-flying No. 1 team that came to Los Angeles last year and confidently defeated the Trojans in a 53-32 beat down.
The headlines will read that the Nike-nurtured Ducks have arguably the best offensive freshman in the country in former Crenshaw High star De’Anthony Thomas (150.67 all-purpose yards per game and 12 touchdowns).
The questions will be asked about whether or not Monte Kiffin’s old school Tampa-2 can even last on the same field against Chip Kelly’s almost unstoppable spread offense.
Throw in the fact that a USC team hasn’t won in the state of Oregon since 2005, and on paper the matchup seems to be pretty one-sided.
But if you look at this contest as a game of black and white, won and lost on paper, you’ll miss something.
If 2011 has taught us anything, it’s that this cardinal and gold-clad group doesn’t care about numbers or rankings or outside chatter.
They care about each other, about defending their oft-criticized coach with their on-field performance and about illustrating the transformation they’ve made both as individuals and as part of something greater than themselves.
“I feel that the way we are playing right now, we can give [Oregon] the best matchup since I’ve been here,” junior quarterback Matt Barkley said. “I’ve mentioned before that there is a lack of individuals on this team, we have a sense of unity. And I think you can see that with the way we’ve played.”
Though it would be easy to try and quantify the Trojans’ chances on Saturday, it’s impossible to do because this team’s identity hinges on more than just a Robert Woods’ bubble screen, a Marqise Lee leaping grab, a Curtis McNeal scamper down the sideline or a Robey game-changing interception.
It’s an identity that has been built on belief when believing in the process seemed foolish.
It’s an identity that has proven time and time against these last few months, that bright lights serve only as a backdrop and not as a daunting challenge.
And, from where this team, this program and this university has come from in the last 18 months, can a 60-minute football game in front of 50,000 rowdy fans even compare to the obstacles left behind?
I don’t think so.
So, why not now for the Trojans?
“For The Love Of The Game” runs every other Friday. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or email Dave at firstname.lastname@example.org.