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Monday rewind: Things fall apart

11/21/2010

If you’re not careful, you could mix up Saturday night’s mess in Corvallis with all of the other breakdowns and bungles when USC crosses the Oregon border.

There was that 2006 game, John David Booty’s pass batted down by a guy named Jeff Van Orsow, the dream of an undefeated season dying young. There was 2008, the Trojans falling into a massive hole and scurrying futilely to catch up, their title chances sunk.

But Saturday’s 29-point loss to Oregon State wasn’t like those. This was more troubling not only by degree but by tone.

It wasn’t competitive on any level -- not the physical, the mental, the psychological, the cellular, the molecular or the atomic. This was a team that never bothered to pack its focus, couldn’t find the energy to do a job. The Trojans staged 10 drives that lasted five plays or fewer. Stephen Paea, a talented defensive tackle trying to catch the eye of NFL executives, made the middle of the offensive line look like a couple of rickety fence posts leaning together.

USC (7-4, 3-4 in the Pac-10) apparently lost its appetite to play, not to mention its starting quarterback. Right now, it’s tough to tell which will be the more troubling departure.

Coach Lane Kiffin felt worse about it 24 hours after it happened than when he had to watch it in person. He said he would have turned off his TV if he had been watching on the couch. He hoped his players felt just as nauseous after watching the rerun Sunday as he did.

“If they were in that offensive meeting today and, when they watched this film, they didn’t feel sick and weren’t sick all day today and last night, they really shouldn’t be here,” Kiffin said.

The beauty of listening to Kiffin is that Midwestern bluntness. He’s the anti-Pete Carroll, who could verbally massaged a subject so expertly, you no longer remembered what your question was. But in one regard, Kiffin isn’t forthcoming at all. He gives out reports on his players’ injuries as glibly as most lamp posts offer weather updates.

So, he wouldn’t say that Matt Barkley won’t be available for Saturday’s game against Notre Dame. The X-rays turned out negative, he offered. But if you watched the game and saw Barkley’s leg rolled under a 275-pound defensive lineman, you probably have a pretty good notion that he won’t be under center in five days. Athletes typically take at least two weeks to return from a high ankle sprain. That opens the very real possibility that Barkley’s 2010 season is over. Ponder that.

If that’s the case, what once looked like a cruise to go 10-3 could become a street fight to salvage 8-5. The best they can now do is equal last season’s record and, 12 months ago, everybody looked at that as a punch line called the Emerald Bowl.

With Mitch Mustain taking snaps and walk-on John Manoogian as his backup, there’s no guarantee USC can beat either of its two remaining opponents, Notre Dame or UCLA.

These will be white-knuckle weeks for USC fans, not the hopeful buildup to 2011 they could have been if the team had traveled well to Oregon. Everything changed on that field in Corvallis on Saturday night, even before Barkley got hurt, but ever so much more afterward. That game may have turned this program into a blind alley it could take a while to emerge from. Neither of the two previous losses felt as grim.

“I wasn’t here to put seven points on the scoreboard. I’m embarrassed that film goes out across the country to other teams,” Kiffin said. “I’ll do everything in my power to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

Yeah, it was that bad. And it keeps getting worse.