- Arash Markazi, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOS ANGELES – This was the kind of game USC would have found a way to lose the last two seasons.
Admit it, even though you probably picked USC to win the game, in the back of your mind you knew this team was entirely capable of mailing it in Saturday afternoon.
Forget for a moment the Trojans were playing former USC offensive and defensive coordinators Steve Sarkisian and Nick Holt, who had led Washington to back-to-back last-second wins over USC the last two seasons.
This was the kind of game even when USC was playing for BCS bowl games would have overlooked with games against Oregon and UCLA coming up to finish the season.
Not only did USC not overlook this game, they looked it straight in the eyes and slapped it upside the head.
USC’s 40-17 thrashing of Washington on Saturday was further proof the Trojans have turned the corner under Lane Kiffin. The rest of the country will not fully realize this as long as USC is on probation and unable to play in the postseason but they will be well aware of it soon enough.
This USC team is more than just a feel-good story after a triple overtime loss to Stanford. They are slowing looking like the team Pete Carroll coached to seven straight BCS bowl games and 11-win seasons.
It’s hard to say exactly when they turned the corner. From most accounts it was after their embarrassing 43-22 loss to Arizona State in Tempe, which was more than just wakeup call for a young team that desperately needed one. It was a game they trailed 21-6 in the first half before storming back to take a 22-21 lead with 4:15 left in the third quarter and then came completely undone.
Since then the Trojans’ offense has scored at least 30 points in every game, their defense has given up 17 or fewer points in four of their last five games, and they have yet to lose a game in regulation (or double overtime for that matter). And, yes, Kiffin is still upset referees didn’t let Andre Heidari, who is 13-for-15 on the season, kick a game-winning field goal in regulation against Stanford.
Almost as amazing as USC’s resurgence after being left for dead after the Arizona State blowout, has been the players who have powered this unlikely rebirth.
When the NCAA put USC on five-year probation, including a two-year bowl ban and the loss of 30 scholarships over 3 years, many believed was USC was done. Remember, the Trojans’ fall from grace had already taken place under Carroll when USC lost three of its last five games of the 2009 season, including getting blown out by Oregon and Stanford by a combined 61 points. It wasn’t like Kiffin was taking over the 2005 Orange Bowl team.
Almost two years later, however, USC’s renaissance is being driven by a group of underclassman who chose to come to USC or stay at USC despite the sanctions.
Ten of the 11 starters on offense and 9 of the 11 starters on defense are underclassmen. There have been 8 other underclassmen that have started this year as well and the team’s kicker and punter are underclassmen as well.
Freshmen and sophomores like Robert Woods, Marqise Lee, Xavier Grimble, Randall Telfer, Hayes Pullard, Nickell Robey, Dion Bailey, Tre Madden and Lamar Dawson knew exactly what they were getting into when they came to USC but still signed up anyway despite knowing that no matter what they did for a year or two they would not be playing in the postseason and would be seriously hampered when it came to individual awards.
“As I was making my decision people were telling me SC’s got the sanctions and da, da, da, but that wasn’t the point of the whole thing,” Lee said. “You want to go where you can compete. I know USC has the great receivers and the great [defensive backs] and I want to go and compete while staying home. It wasn’t about the sanctions to me. Either way I was still going to play and be on TV, it’s not a big deal.”
While Kiffin is a long way from proving himself as a head coach, his resume for being one of college football’s best recruiters is hard to dispute. He was USC’s recruiting coordinator under Carroll when they were signing every blue-chipper in sight and has been able to attract two top 10 classes in his first two years at USC and is putting together another top 10 class this offseason despite working with 10 less scholarships.
“I really believe SC is the only place that could have done this,” Kiffin said. “It’s not about me, it’s about our staff, it’s not about [athletic director] Pat Haden, it’s not about any of that. It’s about SC. These guys knew. Robert [Woods]’ class knew they were coming in and they weren’t going to play in two bowl games. That’s half their career or two-thirds for a guy like Robert. It’s not an equal playing field in recruiting where guys can use that against you and read your sanctions and say it can get worse if they screw up again.
“It didn’t matter because at the end of the day SC is SC. At the end of the day these kids sat with their families and said I’m not going to give away a degree from SC or the opportunity to play at SC for one or two bowl games.”
It would be hard to imagine USC continuing their impressive run with a win next week in Eugene against Oregon. USC has not won in the state since 2005 and their performances there the past five years has been nothing short of dreadful. But if they can find a way to upset the Ducks and finish the season with a win against UCLA, the Trojans would finish the season 10-2 and ranked in the top ten for the first time since 2009.
No one thought the rebuilding process for USC would be an overnight project but if the Trojans finish the season with two more wins, Kiffin would have accomplished his goal much faster than anyone expected.
As he has continued to say for the past five weeks, the storm clouds that have hovered over the program the past two years are slowly beginning to drift away after each win. His goal is to look up at the end of the season and see nothing but clear skies ahead.
“Just keep trying to moving those clouds away,” Kiffin said. “A couple more went away today. We’re trying to move them out of the sky and get some sun around here.”