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Hackett Ponders Simple Plan

USC: Coach second-guessing philosophy built on running game and defense.

November 01, 2000|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In what he calls his most frustrating football season in three decades of coaching, Paul Hackett has been second-guessing himself weekly. If not daily.

The USC coach has wondered aloud if he should have gambled on fourth down against Oregon. Or gone for broke in the final minutes at Stanford. Or simply mixed the run and the pass better against California.

"You try to dissect every single little thing that you can," he said.

More important, with USC mired in a five-game losing streak, Hackett now questions the foundation upon which he has built his team, a philosophy that emphasizes running the ball and strong defense.

While the Trojans worked on that premise the last two seasons, UCLA and Stanford blew past them on the way to the Rose Bowl game with high-powered passing and the worst defenses in the conference.

"That probably should have told me something," Hackett said Tuesday. "The nights when you don't sleep--and I haven't for three weeks--you're thinking about exactly that kind of thing."

It would be hard to imagine Steve Spurrier or, say, Lloyd Carr sitting in a room full of reporters, agonizing over such matters. Hackett's candor might even be charming if his team were winning.

But with USC at 3-5, and Hackett's job on the line, the flip-flopping seems more anguished than anything else. Things have gotten so rocky that opposing coaches have made a point of putting in a good word for him.

"I have been through what Paul Hackett is going through with a team that is trying to get over the hump," said Arizona State Coach Bruce Snyder, who endured four seasons of 6-5 or worse before leading the Sun Devils to the 1997 Rose Bowl game. "You have a good attitude, you practice well, but it's hard to get that breakthrough."

Hackett says the most frustrating part of the season has been, well, that there isn't a most frustrating part. He has been like the boy with his finger in the dike, trying to plug leaks in almost every phase of the game.

OFFENSE

The 53-year-old coach arrived at USC with a reputation as a passing guru, a mad scientist type, the offensive coordinator who worked magic with Joe Montana in San Francisco. He can talk for hours about quarterbacking and the finer points of throwing the ball .

Yet Hackett brought with him the belief that college football depends on a steady ground attack.

This, of course, harks back to the days of Charles White and Marcus Allen. The thing is, Hackett has succeeded in reviving the run.

USC ranks fourth in the conference in rushing. Tailback Sultan McCullough has had three consecutive 100-yard games. But none of this has brought Hackett a victory.

So critics have focused on the passing attack, supposedly his forte.

USC ranks near the bottom of the conference in passing efficiency. Carson Palmer has looked sharp at times but has thrown more interceptions, 13, than touchdowns, eight.

"Obviously the turnovers are huge," Palmer said. "That's been something I've been trying to cut back on but haven't been able to."

The sophomore quarterback does not deserve all the blame. His protection has been streaky--he was sacked seven times by Cal--and he has had to pass in difficult situations, on third and long or when his team is behind.

The receivers have gotten into the act too, dropping passes or sometimes failing to fight for the ball.

But offense is not what worries Hackett most. He expected inconsistency from a squad that features sophomores Palmer, McCullough and receiver Kareem Kelly. The more alarming deficiencies have arisen in other areas.

DEFENSE

Much attention has been paid to injuries in the secondary but every team must deal with injuries.

Hackett and his defensive coordinator, Bill Young, have persevered with a blitzing scheme that often leaves the secondary without help. That leaves USC vulnerable to big plays, a risk supposedly offset by turnovers.

The strategy worked in 1999 when the Trojans led the nation with 39 take-aways.

This season, there have been too many instances of someone forgetting to blitz, missing a gap or otherwise blowing an assignment.

"That's what we've been doing all year," tackle Ennis Davis said. "If we blitzed the right way, it would work."

Instead, two-thirds of the way through the season, USC has only 13 take-aways, not nearly enough to compensate for the long runs and touchdown passes the defense has surrendered. Not enough to make up for 22 turnovers on offense, three of them fumbles inside the 10-yard line.

So USC ranks dead last among Pacific 10 Conference teams in turnover margin.

"All you have to do is look at that one statistic," Hackett said. "We can talk about all the other things, but if you don't take care of the football, you cannot expect to win."

SPECIAL TEAMS

This is the final piece in the disappointing puzzle, as evidenced by the loss to Cal last Saturday.

It has been more than just missed field-goal attempts and shanked punts. The problems go far deeper.

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