After Saturday’s 55-21 drubbing at the hands of the Stanford Cardinal, Southern Cal has become a camp divided: Optimists versus Realists.
The optimistic Trojan fan might tell you that this is the worst week of the worst season since Pete Carroll took over as head coach, but due to key injuries and a young quarterback still mired in a learning curve, better times lie ahead. A less partial, and perhaps, more realistic perspective on the state of the Trojans will dictate that the torch of Pac-10 hegemony has been usurped from USC’s grasp.
The Trojans no longer look dominant on both sides of the ball, and their lackluster play this season can be attributed to three reasons. First, Southern Cal has endured considerable attrition of coordinators and coaches, some to rival schools that, in Washington’s case, can formulate the proper schemes to neutralize USC’s attack.
Second, key injuries, especially on offense, have mounted and have impacted Southern Cal’s ability to control the ball and the line of scrimmage.
But the third reason, which is the most telltale sign that times in the Pac-10 have changed, is that the rest of the improved conference appears to have finally caught up with Southern Cal in talent level.
Regardless of the list of excuses Trojan apologists make, 2009 will be remembered either as a rebuilding year, or the end of the Trojan dynasty.
Much mention has already been made of the departure of Coach Carroll’s coaching staff since the Trojans’ National Championship salad days of 2003 and 2004. A couple of prime examples are former guru Norm Chow, who now works across town in Westwood as UCLA’s offensive coordinator, and Steve Sarkisian, who left for Seattle and surely played a part in the upset by the Huskies back in September.
Also gone from Southern Cal’s coaching staff are former offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, line coaches Tim Davis and Ed Orgeron, as well as Kennedy Pola and Nick Holt, who were both widely considered to be inspirational leaders on the Trojan staff.
With these key contributors having fled for ostensibly better opportunities elsewhere, the once-vaunted Trojan coaching staff remains a hollowed-out version of its former self which must rely on the playmaking abilities of its elite recruiting class to maintain the image of excellence of the program. But what happens when these players get hurt?
In spite of the absence of gifted TE Anthony McCoy and other key Trojans, Southern Cal was able to eke out an ugly 14-9 victory over defensive stalwart Arizona State two Saturdays ago thanks in part to a brilliant 75-yard catch-and-run touchdown by now-injured WR Damian Williams. When these offensive playmakers are missing, USC can’t always look toward their backups with the same confidence as they have in the past.
USC had always maintained a somewhat aloof yet cocky attitude that Southern California is the preferred place to play, and that the best talent coming out of high school should naturally gravitate towards the university with its rich history, its esteemed alumni, as well as the spotlight and connections that Los Angeles affords.
But in recent years, a shift has taken place. Many top recruits have prioritized a starting job and/or meaningful playing time with a less storied program as opposed to being buried in USC’s depth charts like QB Mitch Mustain, or made to change positions, like dominant Stanford tailback Toby Gerhart.
Gerhart, a product of Southern California-based Norco High, was recruited by USC, but after he learned that Trojan coaches would want him to switch from halfback to fullback, he opted to commit to Stanford instead. As Gerhart’s name is suddenly sprouting up in Heisman Trophy discussions, it appears that he made a shrewd decision to become a Cardinal.
As players like Gerhart and fellow Cardinal Andrew Luck level the Pac-10 playing field, this parity makes for broader interest across the conference, if not the nation.
Overlooked football programs in the Pac-10 have endured decades of mediocrity until this year. Arizona State now has a top-20 defense. Oregon State, 5-2 in conference play, is a force at home, and shows improved talent on both sides of the ball. California, albeit a disappointment this season, was a preseason AP top-25 team.
Washington has demonstrated that they can compete in big games when they beat ‘SC and barely lost in South Bend to Notre Dame. Stanford and Oregon, long considered second-tier programs, are not only the current cream of the Pac-10 crop, but they each have legitimate BCS Bowl hopes this year. Even Washington State, while still inferior to the other nine schools, isn’t quite as terrible as it has been in previous years.
As it now stands, the Pac-10 conference is better overall, but given the dreaded “east coast bias”, this newfound parity only serves to portray USC as a weakened program relative to the rest of the conference.
Pete Carroll can't promise every single recruit a starting job, and can't directly control the rash of injuries that besets his team.
But if Carroll wants to achieve and sustain a dominant football program, he needs to do a better job of fostering an environment of stability for the rest of his coaches, and present Southern Cal as a long-term destination for his staff instead of having them believe USC is simply a stepping stone for their respective careers.
A family-like culture would trickle down to the players, create better chemistry, and likely restore some of the glory that has been missing from Heritage Hall for the last three months.