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Trojans eager to turn page

The calendar says it's almost November, a month in which USC is 23-0 under Carroll. But is this season different?

October 28, 2008|David Wharton | Wharton is a Times staff writer.

This time of year, the most important number for the USC football team has nothing to do with yards rushing or completion percentage or sacks. It's all about the calendar.

Since Coach Pete Carroll took over in 2001, the Trojans have gone undefeated in the month of November.

Seven seasons. Twenty-three games. Not a single loss.

Maybe that's why Carroll sounded so upbeat after a tough and occasionally ugly 17-10 victory over Arizona on Saturday night.

"We're getting this thing moving," he said. "It will only get stronger for us, I feel, as we go down the road."

But his team, favored to win a national championship after pounding Ohio State in September, has looked less than invincible ever since. Saturday's performance prompted the question: Can the Trojans keep their slim title hopes alive with another perfect November?

"There's a lot of times we look like a championship team," receiver Damian Williams said, "and there's a lot of times we look like we haven't played football."

The upcoming schedule helps in that only two of the next four opponents have winning records, but that could also hurt in the Bowl Championship Series standings.

Either way, USC's future prospects might depend on the offense.

In the locker room at Arizona, quarterback Mark Sanchez kept going back to a missed connection with receiver Patrick Turner early on, USC settling for a field goal. "I think if I hit the first pass of the game, it might change the complexion of it," he said.

It wasn't just one throw. Though they rank second among Pacific 10 Conference teams in yards and points per game, the Trojans have suffered flat spots.

"I don't know why," offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said. "We have one good game and take a step back. Have another good game and take a step back."

Penalties and red-zone opportunities -- two categories in which USC ranks near the bottom of the conference -- are of concern. Sarkisian wants his unit to run the ball better near the goal line.

In addition, Sanchez's decision-making has come into question. Mixed in with his 20 touchdown passes are seven interceptions, several coming at key moments.

"We kind of shoot ourselves in the foot at times," the quarterback said.

That goes against the trend for Carroll's teams, which have shown an uncanny knack for improving week by week.

The USC defense, however, is another story.

In their only loss, the Trojans missed tackles and left cutback lanes open, allowing Oregon State running back Jacquizz Rodgers to run free.

Since then, the defense has tightened down and, after limiting Arizona to 188 total yards, currently ranks No. 1 in the nation. Defensive coordinator Nick Holt sees even brighter days ahead.

"We've been playing a lot of young guys who are getting better," he said.

Underclassmen such as defensive linemen Everson Griffen, Christian Tupou and Jurrell Casey have contributed. So has linebacker Michael Morgan.

"I believe this is a defensive team," senior end Kyle Moore said after the Arizona game. "If we keep playing great defense, teams won't beat us."

Arizona Coach Mike Stoops seemed to agree, saying: "Any time you play USC and start to close on them, they do a good job of protecting their turf."

A former NFL defensive coordinator, Carroll emphasizes that facet of the game. Yet he sees another reason to feel good about the Trojans' prospects.

Asked about the element of improvement, his team's history of coming on strong at the end, the coach pointed to something he said doesn't necessarily translate into blowout victories.

Carroll blames himself for letting his players come out flat at Oregon State. Now, he said, "we can find the energy on the road. That was in question on the game way back when. What happened? How come we couldn't do that?

"I'm not worried about us being right in any game that we play from this time on. I think we understand how to do that now."

Still, offensive line coach Pat Ruel wants more than just effort. Ruel doesn't believe the offense is executing on a high enough percentage of its plays to be considered successful.

So what does that say about USC keeping its November streak alive?

"What's the date?" he asked.

Told there were still a few days left in October, Ruel smiled and said: "We're right on target."

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david.wharton@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Finishing kick

USC is perfect in November under Pete Carroll. A look at the Trojans' schedule for the month (they end the regular season Dec. 6 at UCLA):

VS. WASHINGTON (0-7, 0-4)

Saturday at the Coliseum.

The Huskies are one of two winless teams in the Bowl Subdivision.

VS. CALIFORNIA (5-2, 3-1)

Nov. 8 at the Coliseum.

If the Bears beat Oregon this week, a Rose Bowl berth could be on the line in this one.

AT STANFORD (4-4, 3-2)

Nov. 15 in Palo Alto.

Think the Trojans will be reminded a time or two about last season's 24-23 loss?

VS. NOTRE DAME (5-2)

Nov. 29 at the Coliseum.

The Trojans have outscored the Irish, 246-92, in winning last six games of the series.

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Fired up by a coach's firing?

Carroll expects Washington to be extra motivated against USC after Willingham's dismissal. PAGE 4

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Up next

USC (6-1, 4-1)

vs. Washington (0-7, 0-4)

Saturday at the Coliseum

3:30 p.m., FS West

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