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No Tanks for Memories Here

October 08, 2000|BILL PLASCHKE

It was a lovely fall football afternoon at the Coliseum, a Saturday filled with belching tubas, fluttering pom-pons, little girls dancing, old men singing.

But when the portrait required a third-down pass, USC ran.

When the energy needed a fourth-down gamble, USC punted.

When the moment called for a roar, USC sighed.

In the wake of the Trojans' embarrassing 31-15 loss to Arizona, critics of Coach Paul Hackett will be pulling out their crumpled but legible lists.

His coaching style lacks discipline. His coaching style lacks good game management.

Yet the most glaring hole in the Hackett regime Saturday was found not on statistics sheets, but in players' eyes.

His coaching style lacked passion.

When the time came for USC to embrace a choking game and pound a fist on its chest, the Trojans instead circled it as if waiting to be properly introduced.

Arizona scored its second touchdown Saturday on Ortege Jenkins' one-yard run on fourth down after the quarterback had personally shooed away the field goal team.

"I feel like if someone has a good idea, we should do it," Arizona Coach Dick Tomey said.

USC was faced with fourth down inside the Arizona 31-yard line four times in the first three quarters, trailing every time, yet not once did they go for it.

Missed field goal. Punt. Missed field goal. Field goal.

At one point, USC tackle Faaesea Mailo was so frustrated, he ran off the field screaming for them to run a fourth-down play with him.

"I was shouting, 'Run Tank, run Tank,' " Mailo said, referring to a play in which a certain 330-pound lineman is handed the ball. "I have complete faith in our coaches. It was just, in the heat of the moment, you just want to go."

There were many such moments for the Trojans Saturday. There simply wasn't much heat.

Arizona scored one touchdown after a reverse pass, scored another on a fake-handoff bootleg.

USC, on its first possession after quickly falling behind 7-0, ran the ball twice up the middle and handed it over after three plays. The Trojans were never that close again.

"Not getting the first down on third-and-one, that was huge," Hackett said. "It's about preparation. It's something I'm doing, or something we're doing."

It's about something they're not doing. That something is bluster. The Trojans need more of it. They need more leaps that result in more faith.

Especially on days like Saturday, when taking a chance really isn't like taking a chance, considering your team is down and your kicker is struggling and your quarterback has the arm but needs the confidence.

Hackett said he didn't take the fourth-down risks because he didn't want to put more pressure on the defense.

"In every situation, I wanted to go for it, but it was more than 10 yards, and I wasn't going to be foolish," Hackett said. "That's me, that's just not playing any kind of percentages."

On one play they actually needed seven yards, and on another they needed nine, but Hackett's philosophy is clear.

Sometimes, especially when the Trojans are leading, it works. But other times, perhaps adjustments are needed that take the game out of his headset and put it in the hands of his players.

"There is leadership there . . . belief there . . . confidence there," Hackett said of his team. "But for some reason, we make a mistake, and dig ourselves a hole, and the confidence gets tested."

The players, however, didn't seem to be trusted to do the dramatic to pull themselves out of that hole.

In the final three quarters, even after trailing 21-0, the Trojans gave the ball 13 times to their running backs.

As crazy as it sounds, that's 13 more passes that Palmer could have thrown. On this day, even 50 wasn't enough.

Even when they passed well, at the end of a 13-play drive to start the second half, Palmer made a third-and-goal toss to Alex Holmes at the eight-yard line. Holmes, who dropped the ball, would nonetheless have looked a lot better trying that catch in the end zone.

When asked how he felt afterward, Palmer shook his head and said, "To take a beating like that . . . embarrassed . . . hurt."

The surprisingly small crowd of 49,342 apparently felt the same way. The dull USC attack seemed to permeate the seats, many of which were empty by the middle of the fourth quarter.

There were boos, and jeers, but mostly apathy. When Hackett ran up the tunnel afterward, fans who once chanted openly for his firing simply stared at him in silence.

"I'm surprised," linebacker Zeke Moreno said of the crowd. "The Coliseum is a great stadium, but if we just had the sort of support that Oregon does. When they play at home, it's a real advantage, but for us . . .

"Sometimes today, the Arizona fans were louder than our fans. It was just shut down out there."

Yet who can blame them? If their team doesn't behave with boldness, why should their fans?

For some, it appears to be a waiting game.

As in, waiting for Hackett to get fired.

Hackett knows it, officials know it, even his players know it.

"It's not all his fault, but he's the head honcho, it's his fall to take," Moreno said matter-of-factly.

In this space last year, a defense of Hackett was offered with the caveat that he deserved one more year. As of late Saturday afternoon, the clock is ticking.

Beginning next Saturday against Oregon, with the return of injured receivers Kareem Kelly and Antoine Harris, the talented Trojans could yet save a season that could still end up looking like 10-2.

But it will require considerably more than a pooch punt.


Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address:

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