USC came out of the Notre Dame game with its pride bruised and its defense exposed against a sound running team --but still very much alive in the Rose Bowl race.
USC, with a 3-1 conference record, is in second place behind 4-0 UCLA with the prospect of playing its remaining league games at home, starting Saturday with Washington State (1-2) at the Coliseum.
But the Trojans, 4-3 overall, don't have the look of a Rose Bowl team. They have been inconsistent and, with the possible exception of Washington, haven't beaten a strong team this season.
In fact, USC looks more like a 7-4 or 6-5 team. Last year, under Ted Tollner, the Trojans finished at 7-5.
Coach Larry Smith is, of course, aware of his team's deficiencies and needs for the future. "Right now, our biggest job in recruiting has to be on defense and it has to be in speed, because we lack team speed," Smith said.
That was a problem last year and it has carried over to this season. Players may get stronger, but they seldom get faster.
Whenever USC and Notre Dame have met in the past, it has always been big man on big man, a phrase favored by former USC assistant coach Marv Goux.
It was still big man on big man Saturday at South Bend, Ind., where Notre Dame won, 26-15, but the Irish were stronger--and faster.
Notre Dame used primarily a one-dimensional offense against USC because sophomore quarterback Tony Rice is not a capable passer at this stage of his career. Even so, USC couldn't stop Notre Dame on the ground, where the Irish rolled up 351 yards.
"We haven't allowed that many yards rushing on our scheme of defense in the past 10 years," said Smith, a former Arizona coach. "It was a big disappointment, a big blow.
"And my teams have always been able to play field position football, but we haven't been able to do it this year."
He was referring to Notre Dame's touchdown drives of 88 and 90 yards despite unfavorable field position and USC's lack of a power punter to keep the opposition in its own territory.
Even so, why couldn't the Trojans stop the Irish on the ground, knowing that Rice wasn't a threat as a passer?
Wouldn't it have been a calculated risk for Smith to stack his defense against running plays, figuring that Rice couldn't beat USC with his arm?
Smith pointed out that the Trojans still had to be concerned about Tim Brown, Notre Dame's talented all-purpose flanker.
"You can't give Brown one-on-one coverage going in," he said. "I'm not going to play him with a 9-2 defense. They hurt us a little bit with options but more so from a couple of different inside schemes that (Notre Dame Coach) Lou Holtz hasn't run since he was at Arkansas. It was what we call a freeze trap."
It seemed that a veteran Irish offensive line simply knocked the Trojans off the ball, creating gaping holes for the running backs.
USC inside linebacker Keith Davis said as much: "They re-established the line of scrimmage five yards downfield."
USC's defensive linemen, tackles Dan Owens and Tim Ryan, both sophomores, and Don Gibson, a redshirt freshman nose guard, took the brunt of the attack.
So did the inside linebackers, Davis, a senior, and Delmar Chesley, a sophomore.
"Our inside linebackers are as responsible in our defense as our down linemen for anything that hits up between the tackles," Smith said.
Davis had 18 tackles, but free safety Mark Carrier had 20 and cornerback Greg Coauette 11, evidence that USC's front seven defenders were being handled by Notre Dame's offensive line.
The Trojans haven't been battered so effectively inside since Washington State upset them last year in Pullman, Wash., 34-14, gaining 309 yards rushing and 201 passing.
Dennis Erickson, WSU's new coach, said that his team is more pass-oriented now, which should suit USC fine when they meet Saturday at the Coliseum. The Trojans are obviously bothered by good running teams.
Michigan State got 238 yards on the ground while beating USC, 27-13. Oregon, a passing team, ran well enough, 143 yards, in upsetting USC, 34-27. Even Washington got 214 yards rushing while losing, 37-23. Smith pointed out, though, that the Huskies weren't as fast as the Irish running backs.
Smith also said that he has only one linebacker, Marcus Cotton, with the speed he wants. As for his young defensive linemen, the USC coach said: "Ryan is playing very well. Gibson is in his first year. He's not a great player, but he'll get better. Owens has to improve."
So Smith is holding competition for starting assignments in practice this week, with Joe Walshe competing against Owens, Gibson against Gene Fruge, Davis against Brian Tuliau, Chesley against Scott Ross. Smith also has named outside linebacker Craig Hartsuyker, a red-shirt freshman, to start in place of Bill Stokes.
No matter how he shakes them up, though, the Trojans won't get any faster.