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Trojans want to ace exam in history

USC is the favorite in Pac-10, but the past has shown an upset can happen any time.

September 25, 2008|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

This particular history lesson does not require much reading.

Top-ranked USC does not have to study the Renaissance or even the days of the single-bar facemask for proof that danger lurks in the Pacific 10 Conference schedule.

Even in a year when most of the league is stuck in the Dark Ages.

As the Trojans face Oregon State tonight, the first step toward what would be an unprecedented seventh consecutive Pac-10 title, they know that traps await them in coming weeks. And it might not matter who they are playing.

Potential upsets "will be caused by the things that make games close and give you problems," Coach Pete Carroll said. "That's when you turn the ball over and you make big mistakes and give a team chances to get over on you."

It doesn't matter that USC, a 25-point favorite against the Beavers, is expected to run the table. It doesn't matter that Oregon, Arizona State and California have tumbled from the national rankings, leaving the Trojans as the lone Pac-10 delegate in the Associated Press poll.

History provides one cautionary tale after another, highly ranked USC teams falling victim to the weekly grind of conference play.

Oregon State is a good place to start. In 1967, eventual national champion USC slipped and slid to its only defeat on a muddy field at Corvallis.

The 1974 national championship team was tied by unranked Cal. The 1978 national championship team fell to unranked Arizona State.

The next season, the Trojans beat Texas Tech, Louisiana State and Notre Dame but let a 21-0 halftime lead dissolve into a 21-21 tie against underdog Stanford and freshman John Elway.

"I've tried to erase that game from my memory banks . . . it won't go away," former USC quarterback Paul McDonald said. "We would have been back-to-back national champs."

Now a radio analyst for USC games, McDonald has watched Trojans teams experience similar pratfalls the last two seasons.

Oregon State and UCLA pulled off upsets in 2006. Stanford, a 41-point underdog, played the spoiler's role last year and USC, hindered by quarterback John David Booty's broken finger, also lost to Oregon.

"You're dealing with 18-, 19-, and 20-year-old kids and you're dealing with human nature," McDonald said. "It's very, very difficult to keep emotionally high, mentally high for 12 to 13 weeks in a row."

Though Carroll acknowledges the challenge of maintaining an edge through the heart of the schedule -- "You never just play the same every single week," he said -- he doesn't believe age is a factor.

"Look at all the 2-0 [NFL] teams that struggled last weekend," he said. "If you're not prepared to be 2-0 and you're all jacked up and everybody's patting each other on the back, you forget about the work. You can fall into the trap."

Success is presumably easier to manage in a football program that has enjoyed so much of it the last six years. A believer that preparation conquers all, Carroll talks about game week as a two-part process.

Initial practices accentuate physical work. As kickoff draws nearer, coaches switch their emphasis to the mental.

"You focus on the details and issues and you get mentally right to hit people," Carroll said. "You get really immersed in the game."

So why has USC stumbled against conference opponents the last few seasons?

Players shake their heads at the suggestion they might have lost focus or looked past underdogs. They offer different theories.

They arrived in Corvallis with memories of Oregon State's aggressive passing attack, currently ranked atop the conference, and a base defense from which the Beavers spin varied blitzes.

They know all about dangerous receiver and returner Sammie Stroughter.

But when it comes to Pac-10 play, familiarity cuts both ways.

"We can get beat by anybody in our conference because our conference knows us so well," defensive tackle Fili Moala said. "They're not scared of us. They don't care what we've done or where we've been."

If nothing else, Pac-10 opponents might use tough times and lopsided betting spreads as motivation against the Trojans. Picture the howling crowd, awash in orange, expected to pack Reser Stadium tonight.

"Everybody's going to be pumped up," USC defensive end Kyle Moore said. "It's going to be their Super Bowl."

That's the challenge facing a No. 1 team in a conference on the skids. Each week, the other guys are looking to make history.

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david.wharton@latimes.com

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