USC Football: "Prep, Not Hype" Easier Said Than Done
That’s the inevitable starting point after USC loses this game each year, going on seven now. Always to an inferior opponent. Always, in part, due to the Trojans stumbling onto the sharpest point of their own blade.
Most of the time, there isn’t one dominant narrative behind it all. Oh, there are the usual suspects -- turnovers, penalties, a rushed quarterback, a foe taken too lightly. But typically, they come together in a cacophonous wall of sound, each element blending with the others until it becomes impossible to distinguish where one begins and the other ends. Most of the time, that’s how this plays out.
Saturday wasn’t one of those nights.
“We tried to take them lightly… I think that’s why we lost,” Randall Telfer admitted to ESPN LA’s Pedro Moura. “All around, we probably weren’t prepared as we should’ve been for this team.”
More than anywhere else, the blame starts there.
More than the offensive line -- in particular, the left side of second-year men Aundrey Walker, Marcus Martin, and first-time starter Cyrus Hobbi -- getting handed their lunch all night long by a venomous Stanford front seven.
More than Matt Barkley’s pair of second quarter interceptions, or his paltry 6.2 yards per pass, or a pedestrian 48.7 percent completion rate.
More than Robert Woods, heretofore USC’s greatest weapon against the Cardinal, spending half the game buried under cloud coverage and the other garbling signals with Barkley in a manner heretofore unseen between the lifeblood of the offense over the past two seasons.
More than the backbreaking penalties -- like Nickell Robey’s pass interference in the second quarter or personal fouls from Curtis McNeal and George Uko -- that compromised the Trojans’ drives and buoyed the Cardinal’s.
More than Monte Kiffin’s defense being run ragged by 37-year-old Pep Hamilton’s Stanford offense with those respective units embodying every lazy stereotype one could make about a pair of coaches with 35 years of life separating them. The Trojan defense looked sluggish, tired, befuddled. The Cardinal offense aggressive, strong, uncompromising.
More than Lane Kiffin’s offense looking as stagnant and bullheaded as it did when he called plays in the Pete Carroll era, when, fairly or not, Trojan fans clamored for his pink slip and celebrated his appointment as the Oakland Raiders head coach not as coronation of one of their own, but as a roundabout way of ousting the offensive coordinator that vexed them so.
Time and again, McNeal and Silas Redd were stonewalled (54 yards on 20 carries; 2.7 yards per carry). Over and over, the offensive line that shielded Barkley so admirably last season crumbled like peanut brittle, allowing the presumptive Heisman favorite to get sacked five times on the night – or three fewer than all of 2011.
Yet Kiffin never backed off the running game despite it yielding so precious little, nor did he cease calling for plays under center even with Barkley repeatedly encountering Stanford defenders the millisecond he finished his drops. If, as Einstein once pontificated, madness is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results, what does that say about a game plan that tirelessly threw the same elements at Stanford to no avail, despite it being painfully obvious that the Cardinal had the battle of the trenches well in hand early in the ballgame?
All of these things matter, of course. Remove just one from the equation -- or, alternatively, insert the injured Khaled Holmes into it -- and a contest that was decided only in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter very likely could swing USC’s way.
Yet all it took were 15 measly days of the 2012 season for the hype, however briefly, to eclipse the prep and for this Trojan team -- whose steel was ostensibly forged hotter, and determination stiffer on account of playing through sanctions -- to underestimate a team in the same manner so many of its forbearers have.
Not just any team, mind you. This wasn’t a mediocre Oregon State team in 2006 or the dysfunctional Arizona State outfit from last year. No, this was the one team they had more incentive than any to beat. Stanford, as we all know by now, was the last Pac-12 team for Barkley to take down. Stanford, lest we forget, was the school that going into last night had beaten USC four out of the last five years, including three in a row behind the golden arm of Andrew Luck.
And Stanford, it can be concluded, is the mechanism that demonstrated the fallibility of the “prep, not hype” concept. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if USC rallies from this letdown the way they after last year’s eerily similar ASU game. The Trojans still boast the best passing attack in the country and plenty of talent, if not depth, on both side of the ball. They also had the benefit, if you could call it that, of losing early and only dropping to the 13th spot in the AP poll. Throw in a bevy of ranked opponents left on the slate and USC has every chance of playing its way back into the national title picture.
But after this, it shouldn’t be expected. The team that was supposed to be different than so many others succumbed to the exact same pressures; accordingly, until proven otherwise, nobody ought to presume they’ll dig themselves out of the hole they put themselves in it the way those outfits couldn’t.
The difference between Barkley, whom so many desperately want to proclaim the best Trojan quarterback ever, and Matt Leinart, who actually is the best Trojan quarterback ever, was that Leinart kept his charges focused for each opponent, or failing that, found a way to pull out a win when USC didn’t necessarily deserve one. It happened because those teams knew they really were good enough to beat anyone, any time instead of waltzing in and presuming that the opponent du jour would eventually unravel because they were playing USC. Prep, not hype.
The despondent looks on these Trojans faces during the fourth quarter, with the game either tied or within one possession, were evidence enough that this team isn’t at that level. Perhaps we’ll look back at the end of the year and belatedly add a “yet” to that sentence. After all, Leinart’s ’03 squad suffered a narrow loss to Cal before cleaning house the rest of the way. But the team we watched last night treated confidence like a see-saw; too high at the game’s onset, when they assumed they’d roll through the Cardinal, and too low in its waning moments, when they needed to believe in their own ability to make plays when it counted.
Make no mistake, this team still has the ability to reach the lofty aspirations it set for itself before the season started, and plenty of schedule left to achieve them. A national championship, the Heisman, toppling the SEC; all of it still is possible. But it’s time for everyone else, though, to temper expectations and ready themselves for something short of that, whatever it may be.
It’s time for us to do what the Trojans did not on Saturday.
Prep, not hype.