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BILL PLASCHKE

A night when 'just enough' just won't be good enough

November 09, 2008|BILL PLASCHKE

Penn State lost. Alabama escaped. Figueroa buzzed.

By the time USC took the Coliseum field against California here late Saturday afternoon, the chances of a one-loss team playing for a national championship had suddenly risen like the noise, 88,000 fans pounding on cardinal helmets and begging for a statement.

The Trojans gave them, um, several.

Gasp

They beat the Bears in a game that was more relief than response, a 17-3 victory that wasn't sealed until the final three minutes.

"We did just enough," said quarterback Mark Sanchez.

Since when, around here, has that been enough?

Yawn

They beat the Bears with the country's best defense but perhaps the country's most puzzling offense.

They barely completed a third of their third-down plays. They were on the field less than the Cal offense. They were as boringly inefficient as the Coliseum elevator.

"Their offense isn't as explosive as in the past," Cal linebacker Worrell Williams said. "They have the guys, but they just don't have the camaraderie they once had."

Oops

They beat the Bears despite committing 10 penalties for 105 yards, and we're talking double-digit silliness.

Brian Cushing pushing a quarterback after a pass. Kaluka Maiava tackling a receiver on pass interference. Nullifying two interceptions on the same Cal drive.

They have now had at least 10 penalties in five of their last six games, looking increasingly more like Raiders than Trojans.

All of which makes their head coach sort of . . . shrug?

"I love the way we're playing and we're not going to change that, it's not worth it," Pete Carroll said. "[But] we're going to try to keep working it."

What the Trojans can't ignore is the fact that, once again, they wasted a memorable defense with a forgettable attack that now has little chance of even sneaking them into the national title game.

Hello? Penn State lost? Your opponent suddenly is not just Cal, but the country's other top one-loss teams? You have to not only beat the Bears, you have to dominate them to make the sort of national impression that proves you belong?

This night was a perfect chance for the Trojans to make everyone remember them again.

Instead, once again, the nation will look elsewhere.

Texas blew out Baylor, 45-21. Oklahoma blew out Texas A&M, 66-28. Florida blew out Vanderbilt, 42-14.

If you think Saturday's stilted show will move USC move ahead of any of those one-loss teams -- all of whom would be underdogs if they played the Trojans -- think again.

"USC was the seventh-ranked team in the country, and yet we were right there," said Cal center Alex Mack, whose team has also lost to Arizona and Maryland.

Enough said.

As always this season, the disconnect can be found in the offense.

The Trojans are 8-1, nobody can score on them, everybody would afraid to play them . . . yet offensively, they really don't know who they are.

Are they a running team? With this kind of defense, and with quarterback Mark Sanchez' lack of consistency, they should be a running team, a possession offense, pounding teams up and down the field.

Yet every time they seem to gain momentum on the grass, they put it in the sky.

Their first drive of the game, they used four runs and two play-action passes to move to the Cal 10-yard line. But on third and five, instead of pounding the ball inside twice, the Trojans tried to score with a Sanchez pass to Damian Williams in the corner of the end zone. It was knocked away, and the Trojans settled for a field goal.

For symmetry's sake, on their first drive of the second half, it was the same thing, two consecutive running plays for a first down, followed by two incomplete passes and a sack.

Only three times did the Trojans run the ball as many as three consecutive plays. On those sequences, with both the running backs and lineman finding that "camaraderie," they averaged eight yards a carry, and that should be enough to pound your way to national attention.

"We're struggling a little bit, we understand that," linebacker Brian Cushing said of the offense.

It's almost as if the Trojans are still trying to figure out a way for Sanchez to imitate Heisman, when instead they could be convincing him to just be Dilfer.

Remember Trent Dilfer? He once ran the offense for the NFL's best defense in Baltimore. He never tried to do too much, and wound up doing it all, with a Super Bowl ring to show for it.

"We love to win games 56-0, but whether it is 56- or one-point wins, we'll take them," Sanchez said.

The Trojans should take them, and enjoy them, absolutely.

But they should not be surprised when, viewing the wealth of USC's talent and coaching, others on the college football landscape are not so accepting.

This was one of those games.

Everyone was listening for bam, pop, pow!

They instead heard gasp, yawn and oops.

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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