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A culture crash for the Trojans

November 15, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

A Stanford senior communications major stood in the middle of a nearly empty stadium, the homecoming crowd having long since gone home, and administered the latest plunge into the heart of a USC football season.

Richard Sherman had earlier leaped in front of a Matt Barkley pass and returned it for a touchdown.

He had then posed for the cameras while jeering, "I'm 2 and 0 in the Coliseum. Fight on, SC!"

But this was worse. This was about more than a 34-point deficit on the scoreboard. This was about an unimaginable deficit in a culture.

Said Sherman of the Trojans: "You could just see that everything is not there. They don't run as hard. They don't play as hard."

And thus a team that has spent its entire season searching for an identity finally found one, captured beautifully by a thoughtful student dressed in eye black and grass stains and a 55-21 Stanford victory.

The 2009 Trojans: They don't run as hard. They don't play as hard.

It was homecoming in name only Saturday, USC returning to a place of unfamiliarity and unrest, a team of strangers in a Coliseum of brooding and boos.

After seven years as a national championship contender, they are now a team capable of yielding the most points in school football history -- that's 121 years, people! -- to a perennial loser whose starting lineup would barely fit on their depth chart.

"It's like everything turned bad," USC linebacker Malcolm Smith said.

After seven years of leading the nation in toughness, they are now a team capable of giving up 325 smash-mouth rushing yards to a team that simply handed the ball to a block-shaped running back.

"They brought it and they kept bringing it," safety Taylor Mays said. "Something was wrong. Something didn't feel right."

After seven years of offensive smarts, they committed four dumb turnovers against the nation's 82nd-ranked defense while gaining 26 yards on their final four drives.

"I'm not sure I have the right words to describe being humbled like this," Coach Pete Carroll said.

Why not just pull out the script from the Washington and Oregon games? In one form or another, this has been happening all season.

The Trojans have played USC-dominating football, what, maybe three times? As the stakes get higher, the quality of effort and intensity drops, with this latest debacle costing them even the remotest of chances at a Rose Bowl or other Bowl Championship Series game.

At this rate, Hollywood's team will be lucky to be spending New Year's Eve in El Paso.

In fact, before Saturday's game, Sun Bowl brochures were mysteriously placed at writers' seats in the press box.

I covered it in chips and peanut shells at the time. I'm digging it up now.

"This isn't us," Mays protested.

Oh yes, it is. After 10 games of it, it's all you, a team of highly recruited stars who suddenly behave as if they are being neither taught nor motivated

After seven years as the bully, they are now being bullied.

Exhibit One: Early in the second quarter, after a 15-yard pass moved Stanford to the USC three-yard line, the Cardinal hustled out of a no-huddle offense and handed the ball to Toby Gerhart.

USC was so flustered, seemingly half of their defense was running on and off the field during the play.

USC was so feeble, the defenders who found their positions were bulldozed by the Stanford line for a Gerhart three-yard touchdown.

Two Trojans penalties on the play, and the guy still scores.

"We came into a very intimidating place and made a strong statement," said Gerhart, who gained 178 yards, scored three times, and should at least be invited to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.

Exhibit Two: Leading by 27 points with 8:47 remaining in the game, Harbaugh ordered his team to attempt a two-point conversion.

The Trojans held, but the angry Trojans and their booing fans will never forget, nor should they. The coaches exchanged words while leaving the field, but danced around it afterward.

Said Carroll: "I don't know what they were thinking with that."

Said Harbaugh: "I felt like our line was in a groove. . . . We went for it because we thought we could get it."

I then asked Harbaugh if he was concerned that such a move would tarnish the victory and send the wrong message, but he gave the identical nonsensical answer about his line being in a groove, totally avoiding the issue.

So, fine, I'll ask Harbaugh again.

This is what you teach? This is how Stanford wants you to coach? Aren't you both supposed to be better than that?

By the time USC gets another crack at Stanford next season, Harbaugh probably will be gone to someplace like Michigan, leaving the kids to feel the brunt of their coach's lack of class, and isn't college football grand?

For now, with next weekend off before they face UCLA, the Trojans have bigger worries. Their defense is in chaos, their game plan is in tatters, Matt Barkley isn't even the best freshman quarterback in his own town, and early on this sad Saturday evening, Pete Carroll violated his own trademark.

Always compete?

"I'm glad that we have a bye," said Carroll, which says it all.

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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