The best thing to happen to USC last year was losing to Arizona State. It was a wake up call to the Trojans’ offense and their mishaps, made Matt Barkley a better game manager and allowed the team to re-assess their own expectations for the season.
The results were seen gradually throughout the season, as the Trojans developed a passing game in the next game against Arizona, gained defensive confidence against Cal and then put it all together for the best coached game of Lane Kiffin’s career and Barkley’s best managed performance, with a win at Notre Dame despite being double-digit dogs.
Without a wake up call in Tempe, perhaps Kiffin isn’t forced to throw Marqise Lee into the fire or rely on his defense to become a bend but don’t break defense. Perhaps USC doesn’t out-play Stanford and Andrew Luck for long stretches and doesn’t dominate Oregon for three quarters and hang on for a win in Eugene.
The loss put a chip on the Trojans’ shoulder and forced them to buy into themselves with humility and quiet confidence.
Fast forward 12 months and here are the Trojans, now with plenty of expectations, finding themselves in the same place after a loss to a ranked team on the road in their Pac-12 road opener.
Sure, there’s plenty of differences. This USC team was supposed to be significantly more mature than the Trojans that took the field in Tempe last September. Plus, this team has been through the fire and knows how to win and overcome adversity, suggesting that they in theory wouldn’t need a moment to be deconstructed and welded back together.
Yet, on Saturday in Palo Alto, we learned that wasn’t the case.
This is still a team that needs to learn how to not get ahead of themselves, as evident with some of the quotes coming out of the locker room in the postgame, as well as the physical emotion on display towards the end of the game and in the locker room. This is still a team that can’t let offensive line struggles lead to dropped passes and forced throws. This is still a team that can’t quit when they’ve been punched in the mouth the fourth quarter.
So, here they are, back to square one and ready to be built back up into the mold of winners. Can it be done? Of course.
When you consider that after the loss to Arizona State, Lane Kiffin was on a hot seat and player execution was being questioned and they bounced back beautifully, there’s precedence that the Trojans can re-calibrate themselves to overcome the pressure.
That pressure is a lot bigger this time, especially with landmines along the way, including the trip to Salt Lake City in a couple of weeks, followed by big road games at Washington, Arizona and UCLA. Not to mention that two high ranked teams, Oregon and Notre Dame, will invade the Coliseum in November.
Those are big obstacles. But as we’ve learned with college football over the years, it’s the obstacles that impress people, not the struggles or the blowouts against inferior opponents.
Should the Trojans find a way to beat five ranked teams and another potential Top-10 team in the Pac-12 Championship Game, they’d have as good of a shot as anyone to make the title game.
It all starts with Cal, and we’ll know right away as to whether or not the Trojans will have used the loss to Stanford to begin another maturation process or not.
Either Barkley and company are going to rally the troops and go all out on Cal to head into their bye week with confidence, showing their reaction to the defeat, or they’ll sit back and let Stanford beat them twice, succumbing to the inconsistencies of Jeff Tedford and Zach Maynard.
A size-able win or a win with notable intra-game victories does a lot for the Trojans. It gives the offensive line something rally around and reinforces their abilities, while defensively, a big win over Cal would give SC confidence in stopping a pass-first mobile quarterback like they’ll face going forward, with Keith Price, Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley looming.
Couple those potential mental victories with a bye week, and Lane Kiffin can have his team both rested and reassured going into a hostile Rice-Eccles Stadium two Thursdays from now. All things considered, that’s would be as good as things could be for the Trojans, while presumably being on the verge of the Top 10. But, as noted, it’ll require an angry, emotionally driven victory to get that mojo back.
And well, a loss means you can officially start saying the sky is falling and erasing any thoughts you had of Matt Barkley winning the Heisman.