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BILL DWYRE

USC's season has a dull edge to it

This isn't the kind of Pete Carroll team L.A. has gotten used to, but Carroll gets some slack after seven years of dominance.

December 06, 2009|Bill Dwyre

It has been a season for USC football in which the Trojan horse became a Trojan mule.

Saturday's 21-17 loss, to a relatively ordinary Arizona team, put a lid on an autumn of agony for those who follow the fortunes of the Cardinal and Gold.

Yes, there will still be a bowl game, but not a USC-level bowl game. A record of 8-4 overall and 5-4 in the conference would be getting coaches raises at some places. A trip to an Emerald or Poinsettia Bowl, something to be announced today, would do the same at some places.

This is not some places. This is Los Angeles and USC. This is the entertainment capital of the world, a place used to being entertained by such things as 11 national titles and so many Pac-10 championships you need a calculator to keep track.

USC will go to whatever lower-tier bowl beckons, but not out of any particular pride or joy. The motivation will be to get those extra weeks of practice.

These kinds of bowl games, with under-motivated, down-on-their luck powerhouses, can be dangerous. Remember the 1992 Freedom Bowl, where USC went to Anaheim to play Fresno State, and many Trojans fans had trouble dealing with the very thought of it? Certainly, there was no thought of defeat.

The late Mal Florence, longtime L.A. Times beat writer on USC football and the author of a book on the subject, was not covering the Trojans that year and when asked whether he would attend the Freedom Bowl, got a horrified look on his face.

"Good Lord, no," Florence said. "Somebody might recognize me."

It turned out that Florence made the correct decision. Unranked, eight-point underdog Fresno State won, 24-7, and an entire legion of Trojans fans was horrified.

If that seems arrogant, so be it. USC and its fans have earned it, and with the arrival of Pete Carroll as coach nine seasons ago, nurtured it. Seven of those seasons resulted in conference titles and seven in national rankings in the top four.

Winning didn't become the habit. Dominance did.

And then came 2009, the departure of quarterback Mark Sanchez to the New York Jets, and the departure of a linebacking corps consisting of Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews. They didn't just tackle. They destroyed.

"We had too many old horses we went to war with," Carroll said Saturday, wistfully.

This situation, like most in major sports, is a what-have-you-done-lately thing. Carroll gets some slack because, until this season, his results have been virtually impeccable. Still, the downside of being really good at something for a long time is that you are expected to be really good always.

This season, USC wasn't really good. It was really ordinary. Worse, in many of its games, it was really boring.

No amount of gamesmanship and attempts at one-upmanship at the end of the USC- UCLA game could detract from the fact that that was one, long, boring game. Saturday's effort, featuring a total of 12 punts, and a game-high rush of 17 yards and pass of 16 by USC, doesn't quite rock the action meter.

Still, there was a chance for some real drama when the Trojans, and freshman quarterback Matt Barkley, took the field with 3 minutes 14 seconds left. Arizona led, 21-17, and USC had the ball, first and 10, on its 20.

Would we see a glint of a future John Elway? Or would we see a kid just a year off the high school fields of Orange County? Of moments such as this are futures projected and stars made.

Barkley was sacked, then threw three incompletions, including one on fourth down in which Damian Williams appeared to be open. No Elway sighting there.

Maybe Williams ran a wrong pattern. Maybe Carroll's continuing ga-ga over Barkley will prove correct in seasons to come.

Maybe.

"He's such a bright kid, he works at it so hard, and he cares so much," Carroll said afterward.

Carroll said he had trouble watching Thursday night's game for the Rose Bowl, his Rose Bowl, between Oregon State and Oregon. The Ducks won and will take on Ohio State, which was beaten by the Trojans early in the season, when Barkley showed hints of Elway.

"It was tough, watching Oregon and Oregon State, playing for the title," Carroll said.

He meant to say, playing for "our title."

So the decade of dominance has ended with a whimper for USC. Carroll's track record says that the new decade, starting next season, will be much better again.

Yes, there is still a bowl game to play, somewhere off the beaten path and far beneath the national collegiate football radar. Few will care. Only the most ardent will attend.

One thing is certain. If Mal Florence were alive today, he'd stay home.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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