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COLLEGE FOOTBALL

USC Trojans have issues

They're expected to rebound Saturday against Washington State at home, but USC has weaknesses that must be addressed before October road games.

September 26, 2009|Gary Klein

USC this week filled the racks of its campus bookstore with No. 7 replica jerseys.

The number is worn by freshman quarterback Matt Barkley.

It also represents the consecutive number of times USC has won the Pacific 10 Conference title, appeared in Bowl Championship Series bowl games and finished in the top four of the Associated Press media poll.

However, those streaks are in jeopardy after USC's loss last week at Washington.

The Trojans, as they always do after stumbling against previously unranked conference opponents, are expected to rebound tonight with a victory over Washington State, a 45 1/2 -point underdog at the Coliseum.

Beyond that, the only thing that can be said with certainty about the Trojans is this: They have issues.

At least seven of them.

They might not show up against the undermanned Cougars, but they must be resolved before the Trojans head off to play October road games at California, Notre Dame and Oregon -- before this turns into possibly the worst season under Pete Carroll since the Trojans' 6-6 finish in 2001.

Not that USC's players, accustomed to 11- and 12-win seasons, can fathom that scenario.

"We slipped last year, we slipped the year before -- it happens," junior receiver Damian Williams said. "The true character of the team always shows when you bounce back. . . . We'll be fine."

Carroll is guardedly optimistic.

"We know who we are and what we do," he said. "The endeavor is to get back to that."

USC, ranked 12th, never dropped as precipitously in the AP poll as it did after the Washington defeat.

A look at seven areas of concern:

Coaching

First-year play-caller Jeremy Bates has come under fire for a conservative approach, but before going bonkers remember that every call on offense and defense ultimately goes through Carroll.

The Trojans' botched clock management at the end of the first half cost them a field goal against Washington.

The Trojans did not convert any of their 10 third-down plays against Washington and have been successful only 23% of the time in three games.

"We've got to open it up more," Bates said of the offense. "We've got some playmakers and we have to get the ball into their hands. That's on me."

The quarterbacks

The Trojans have never attempted to return to form with a quarterback situation similar to the current one.

Matt Leinart, John David Booty and Mark Sanchez might have once been first-year starters, but none were true freshmen like Barkley.

And none of them were expected to lead the Trojans despite a shoulder injury.

That's what Barkley will try to do after sitting out the Washington loss because of a bone bruise in his right shoulder. He is not 100%, but Carroll could not wait to get him back in the lineup rather than trying again with Aaron Corp or giving Mitch Mustain an opportunity.

Barkley played well in the opener against San Jose State, then completed about half his passes and had one intercepted at Ohio State.

He showed toughness and poise in leading the Trojans to victory at Columbus, but he has thrown for only one touchdown and has yet to stretch the field.

Now he's going to do it with a bad shoulder?

Fumbles

The offensive line has been solid, and Trojans tailbacks averaged 7.6 yards a carry last week in Seattle.

An impressive statistic, to be sure, but one that won't mean much if the running backs continue dropping the ball.

Carroll has given junior tailback Joe McKnight more rope than perhaps any tailback in USC history. McKnight's fumble problems continued against Washington, the junior dropping the ball twice.

The Trojans recovered both fumbles, but they weren't as lucky when tailback Stafon Johnson and fullback Stanley Havili put the ball on the ground. Both mistakes ended potential scoring drives and helped spur Washington to victory.

Junior C.J. Gable, who started 12 of 13 games last season, this week wondered aloud why he was benched while others continued to play despite fumbling.

It's a valid question.

Not catching on

Through three games, none of USC's wide receivers has caught a touchdown pass. Tight end Rhett Ellison has one. So does reserve fullback D.J. Shoemate.

But not Williams.

"I think we're doing well, but the passing game hasn't quite been where we wanted it to be," said Williams, who has 11 receptions. "The No. 1 goal is to make sure we don't get discouraged. We've got to make sure we stay focused and take care of our job."

The play-calling has handicapped the receivers and so has the absence of starter Ronald Johnson, who could be sidelined four more weeks because of a broken collarbone suffered during training camp.

The Trojans need more production from David Ausberry, Brice Butler and others.

Penalties

USC ranks fifth in the Pac-10, averaging seven penalties a game.

More troubling is the timing of the infractions.

USC was penalized three times on punts or kickoffs against Washington, putting the Trojans' offense in bad field position. Personal-foul penalties kept alive Washington scoring drives, including the game-winner.

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