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Monday, November 2, 2009
Will USC get off the carpet?

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Now what for USC?

 
  Steve Dykes/Getty Images
  Pete Caroll’s Trojans need to rebound strongly if they still want to be in the BCS bowl race.
Well, Trojans fans first need to recognize -- and stomach with equanimity -- that other Pac-10 fans and, really, the entire nation want to sing-and-dance for a week. The appropriate image, one that might be some consolation, is the Munchkins singing "Ding Dong the witch is dead!" in the Wizard of Oz.

Yes, the little people are thrilled.

Every other team in the country has suffered many, many, many double-digit defeats since 2001. Seems like it's about time the Trojans suffered their second.

Of course, there will be blustering about the Trojans being overrated despite the fact they have accomplished more this season than just about any other team in the nation, posting three wins over teams ranked in the current BCS standings, all of them on the road.

Oregon is better than USC. No question. That doesn't mean the Trojans aren't a top-10 team.

And if USC wins the rest of its games and finishes 10-2 -- and Oregon takes care of business and wins the Pac-10 title -- the odds are good that the Trojans still will earn the conference a second BCS bowl berth.

So despair not USC fans!

Or maybe you should.

That defense that gave up (clear throat) 613 yards on Saturday is banged up. Linebacker Malcolm Smith suffered a shoulder injury and won't play this weekend at Arizona State and could be out for weeks. Middle linebacker Chris Galippo and backup strong side linebacker Jarvis Jones suffered neck sprains against the Ducks, which could be issues for a while even if they can play Saturday. Defensive lineman Armond Armstead fractured his wrist. Defensive end Everson Griffen is experiencing turf toe, another injury that could linger for weeks.

And more than a few folks are wondering if if All-American safety Taylor Mays' is hurting. Mays, who missed the Washington loss with a sprained knee, didn't look like himself against the Ducks.

Meanwhile, on offense, fullback Stanley Havili (shoulder) and tight end Anthony McCoy (ankle) should be considered questionable for the trip to Tempe. Both veterans were missed at Oregon.

The performance at Oregon made this manifest: It's possible that there actually are limits to USC's talent and depth. That losing eight A-list defensive starters and a quarterback who was the fifth-overall NFL draft pick can, in fact, be an issue, just as starting a true freshman quarterback has a downside no matter how poised, talented and intelligent that quarterback is.

And don't forget the coaching turnover the Trojans have gone through over the past season: two new coordinators, a new quarterbacks coach and offensive play-caller and a new defensive line coach. Sometimes new voices complicate a team's culture and dynamic.

The defensive implosion still feels shocking, though, particularly because five games into the season it looked like the Trojans had merely reloaded.

Entering the Notre Dame game on Oct. 17, the Trojans ranked sixth in the nation in total defense (238.6 yards per game), fourth in scoring defense (8.6 ppg), fifth in run defense (64.8 ypg) and hadn't allowed a touchdown pass.

Three games later, the Trojans rank 36th in the nation in total defense (331.88), 27th in scoring (19.13), 44th in run defense (118.75) and have given up six TD passes.

If those numbers hold steady, this will be Pete Carroll's worst defense since 2005 -- the worst in his nine-year tenure -- which is surprising considering how good that team was.

The breakdowns against Notre Dame and Oregon State mostly happened after the Trojans grabbed big leads, so a letdown was a possible explanation, though a repeated loss of focus doesn't speak well of the Trojans players and coaches.

But the way Oregon dominated the second half suggested the Trojans might not be in great physical shape. The Ducks players said they wore down USC and who could argue? After three consecutive poor fourth quarters, maybe the Trojans need to do some more cardio.

Some might point to a lack of heart. Oregon punched the Trojans in the mouth, and the Trojans didn't respond.

That, however, will be measured going forward, starting at Arizona State.

USC should be plenty motivated by its now-myriad doubters. Folks have taken shots at USC for years while not believing their own words. Everybody -- deep down -- knew what USC was: The team that always would be favored over everyone else on a neutral field.

Now there are actually legitimate grounds to question how good USC is. An unprecedented string of seven consecutive Pac-10 titles is in serious peril.

Therein lies another potential consolation prize for USC. Remember: You Trojans are tired of bludgeoning Big Ten teams in the Rose Bowl.

So what if USC gets off the floor, towels off its bloody face and whips the remaining teams on its schedule?

Then it will go to another BCS bowl and earn an opportunity to make a simple statement: We're still USC.