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A feel-good game for Sanchez

November 02, 2008|KURT STREETER

If only Mark Sanchez could play every game against a school from the northwestern-most state in the Lower 48.

A month ago, you may remember, Sanchez coughed up a hideous four-turnover effort against Arizona State.

The following week he went to Pullman, Wash., and, after five touchdowns, 253 yards and no interceptions against Washington State, got to feeling good about himself again.

What followed was a surprisingly unsteady performance in last week's white-knuckle win over Arizona.

Then came Saturday and a gray and windy late afternoon at the Coliseum, where Sanchez got his groove back by playing a team from the land of the eternal latte.

Sanchez played only one half and one series in this game -- a 56-0 beat-down of the inept Washington Huskies -- but that was time enough for him to add some real heft to his highlight reel.

His line against the Huskies: three touchdowns (two of them throwing), 167 yards, 15 of 19 passing, no picks.

Now come important questions: Can the curly-locked quarterback repeat his fine performance for four more regular-season games and a bowl? Will he finish on an upswing, the kind the No. 7-ranked Trojans must have to get the kind of hype that will move them toward a title tilt in Miami in January?

At game's end, Sanchez insisted he will duplicate Saturday's effort the rest of the way.

He described himself as having been through the fire over the last month and said he has emerged -- after much soul-searching and many discussions with his coaches about his tendency to be over-hyped and self-critical -- a better, calmer, more confident player.

"Coach Carroll really instilled that in me, just relaxing and not trying too hard," Sanchez said. He added that it wasn't just Carroll who helped. Yogi Roth, a USC quarterbacks coach, had come to him after last week. What kind of player do you really want to be, the coach asked.

"First thing that came to mind was, I want to win, I am a winner . . . that is what I want to do," Sanchez said. That's it, Roth replied, that's what you are, that's who you are. Be that, trust that, feel that way.

Something clicked. Sanchez told me he had never been asked this before, never really thought about how he defined himself. "It was just reassuring and refreshing," he said, knowing the coaches care about his emotions during an up-and-down season, his first as a starter.

From now on, he vowed, he will do as his coaches have been urging: dropping the negativity, increasing the calm, always acting as if something good is just around the corner.

It may well be that this new self-awareness led to the Sanchez we saw on Saturday. True, Saturday's game was pretty much an extended scrimmage in front of a home crowd more juiced by the fact that it was homecoming than by the game itself. But the poise he showed, and the numbers -- they don't lie. End of first quarter, Sanchez had completed nine of 10 passes for 97 yards and two touchdowns. End of second quarter he was 15 of 17 for 167 yards, with a short rushing touchdown added in for good measure. Nice start, nice finish, cool, clean and efficient.

So what's next for the Trojans? First off, they still have a chance to win the national title. There are plenty of naysayers who say the Trojans haven't a chance at making the national championship game. They say the four teams ahead of USC in the Bowl Championship Series standings are too good and won't lose enough to allow the Trojans to leap into the top pairing. Don't believe them. Look what happened to Texas: a 39-33 loss to Texas Tech. In the matter of a week, much can change college football.

Next week, California's Golden Bears come to the Coliseum with a 4-1 Pacific 10 Conference record, a team in the mix for its first Rose Bowl since the days of Job.

After Cal's win over Oregon on Saturday, there will be much hype to this game. But after last week, when I witnessed firsthand Cal's struggle against weak sister UCLA, my guess is that USC won't have much problem with the Golden Bears. The same will be true for the opponents that follow: Notre Dame, Stanford, the Bruins.

What will matter for the Trojans national championship hopes in all of these games will be how they win. A premium will be placed on style points. The Trojans can win many ways; with their stealth defense, of course, and with strong running.

But to win with style -- with big offensive output and by wide margins -- they need a quarterback who is sure and strong and accurate. They need the Mark Sanchez who shredded the poor Cougars up in Pullman. They need the Mark Sanchez who feels as though he's learning what he can do and what he is, the one who brought out the knives and sliced up the hapless Huskies on Saturday.

Anything less from their quarterback and the Trojans have almost no chance of playing in Miami, a national title on the line.


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