Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Fall of Troy

Well, perhaps that title is a slight overstatement.

It remains a distant possibility that USC will finish this season with 11 wins, a Pac-10 title, and a trip to the Rose Bowl, a combination that represents the least that they have accomplished in each of the past seven seasons. They control their own destiny in the first category but the latter two are out of their hands. Two teams sit ahead of them in the Pac-10 standings: 3-1 Arizona and 4-0 Oregon, who crushed them Saturday night in Eugene by a score of 47-20. Even if SC runs the table from here on out (including beating the #20 ranked Wildcats in the season finale), it would still take a miraculous collapse by an excellent Ducks team (ranked #10 and sure to rise) for them to secure an eighth straight league title. And without that automatic trigger for a Pasadena appearance, SC could find themselves left out of a BCS bowl game for the first time since 2001.

But I don't even think that was the most damage done last night. It's one thing to have a season that doesn't live up to your lofty expectations even though you're still going to finish it with double-digit wins; it's another thing to have a season in which you lose your mystique. I think that's what Saturday night's loss may have done, and done for good. In the Carroll era, during which they are now 94-17, it is only the second time that they have lost by double-digits and the other defeat was by 11 points to Notre Dame in 2001 - Pete's very first year here! Even more shocking, since 2002 they are 88-11 and last night was the first time they have lost by more than a single touchdown!

In other words, even when you beat them, which was seldom, you barely did beat them. To use a (now obsolete) Halloween reference, they were like Jason or Freddy Kruger, always right there, always spooking you out, which allowed them to maintain their aura of invincibility even in the event of rare defeat. When you nudged them it was a fluke and you knew it. So not only did they have the best and most respected program in college football, the one spoken of in the most reverential tones, they had the most frightening. They were the team that, with a few breaks here and there, could have been on a triple-digit number winning streak, the team that was competitive in literally every game, the team with the startling win-loss record exceeded only by the shock caused by a deeper look at their game-by-game results.

That's all over now. USC lost by 27 points to Oregon - the worst loss by a Trojans team since 1997. They gave up 47 points - the most they have allowed since 1996. They allowed 391 yards on the ground, the most since the 1977 Bluebonet Bowl against Texas A&M. They allowed 613 total yards, the second most in team history, behind the the 623 they gave up to Notre Dame in 1946.

What the hell happened? Well, I can't imagine that Oregon has more talent than USC, or even as much talent, but clearly the gap has closed in that department. The truth is, while this SC team is likely still the deepest and most gifted in the country, they're probably a little less talented than they've been in recent years. If they were ever going to lose their grip on the conference, it was probably going to be this year. And if they were ever going to suffer a lopsided loss, this was the ideal night for it to happen, with a freshman quarterback (Matt Barkley, who played well statistically but couldn't lead the Trojans offense in keeping up with Oregon's pace in the second half the way that, say, Mark Sanchez probably would have), without their money running back (Stafon Johnson), without their stud tight end (Anthony McCoy), on the road in a raucous environment (Autzen Stadium) against just the right team to hand it to them (a terrific Ducks team playing better than anyone in the country). It was shocking to witness - after all, this just doesn't happen to USC, they don't get run off the field - but in retrospect maybe it's not as surprising as it seemed.

What happened? They just got their asses kicked, all across the board, it was bound to happen at some point and this was that point. Now they've lost that distinct air that surrounded them, and once that's gone it's hard to get back. Are they still the best program in the country? Yes. Are they still the same program that they were before Saturday night? No. They're just like everybody else now. So what happened last night wasn't just a loss; in one respect, it was the end of an era.

And even a trip to the Holiday Bowl beats that.