Things have turned quickly for the Trojans as they prepare for the annual crosstown rivalry against the Bruins.
Last week was one of the most tumultuous in recent USC football history. Coming off a record-breaking loss to Oregon, there was serious hand-wringing from the Trojan family about the status of the USC defense. Later in the week, the Trojans were in the news again but for all the wrong reasons with a story of ball deflating that was front and center for the national media.
With a head coach being skewered across the country and facing the very real prospect of having the season go in a very bad direction, the Trojans put together a victory over Arizona State that seems to have settled things quite nicely. It's not to say that a single victory can be declared a cure-all for USC's issues, but the game offered a chance for the team to feel good about itself in a few key areas and, most importantly, it gave them the opportunity for a one-game showdown to determine a berth in the Pac-12 title game.
For the second straight week, the Trojans kept the penalties down and have moved from last in the country to No. 8 in the Pac-12 Conference. There was continued solid play from an offensive line that has been coming on in recent weeks and that, in turn, helped power a running game that featured Curtis McNeal -- a big-play performer who had seen his role reduced this season due to injuries and the presence of Silas Redd. McNeal showed last year how much of an impact he can have on the USC offense, and it's good for the team to head into the final stretch with a fresh reminder of that.
Most important for the future prospects of this team was the performance from the defense. It's hard to overstate the sense of shock at seeing the Trojans give up more than 1,300 yards of offense in the previous two games. That just doesn't happen at USC -- or at least it never had before. The Sun Devils aren't going to be confused with Oregon in terms of offensive prowess, but they did come into the game averaging more than 450 yards of offense per game, and USC held them to 200 yards below that. There were also impressive sack numbers and plenty of turnovers.
Now the Trojans sit here at the start of UCLA week with a few remaining concerns -- turnovers and the lack of recent activity for Robert Woods top the list -- but not enough to put any overt amount of worry on the task at hand. For however shaky things seemed last week, for however rocky the road has been this season with three losses along the way, the Trojans are actually heading into this game feeling as good about themselves as they have all year.
It's as if the pressure of the preseason expectations is gone and the ability to achieve their goals is right in front of them. There was so much out of their control at the start of the season when all anybody could talk about was a possible national title run. You almost have to be perfect to control your destiny in that case and the Trojans weren't. There were a lot of questions swirling – especially after the two-game losing streak – and the future was uncertain.
Now, the path is simple. A victory over UCLA means a spot in the conference title game. A victory over Notre Dame doesn't impact the conference championship, but it would be huge for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact the Irish could be playing for a berth in the BCS title game. After that, comes the Pac-12 championship game, and a likely rematch with the Ducks (or maybe the Cardinal).
If the Trojans can pull off that feat, the magic of Pasadena on New Year's awaits. But first, it's a trip to the glorious bowl in Arroyo Seco for a matchup with a Bruins team that is more than capable of putting an end to the run before it can even get started. Nobody ever said it was going to be easy, and the 2012 Trojans can certainly attest to that.