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Trojans' performance is strictly for the (boo) birds

BILL PLASCHKE

USC's uneven, unconvincing play in a tepid 27-6 win over Washington State definitely earns Coliseum crowd's wrath.

September 27, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

As rebounds go, it was a fumbling, sliding floor burn.

As restorations go, it was one giant hammer to the thumb.

The USC football team returned from a distressing weekend in Seattle to engage the soft embrace of sorry Washington State on Saturday night in a game that was supposed to make it all better.

It didn't.

Or, as the fiercely loyal Coliseum fans commented less than eight minutes into the evening, "Booooo."

The Trojans won the game, but lost the worry, a 27-6 victory over the Cougars doing little to alleviate the question that has enveloped this previously impenetrable program.

What in the Carroll is going on here?

Even the man himself doesn't seem to know.

"This is not stuff indicative of playing good football," Coach Pete Carroll said afterward. "We're an unfinished product."

With visits to Cal, Notre Dame and Oregon scheduled over the next five weeks, he needs to start sanding and staining, and quick.

Even with rookie quarterback Matt Barkley returning to wing his way deep, even with the defense returning to stuff the smaller Cougars with hits that could be heard in the press box, Saturday just didn't feel dominant.

By USC's standards, it just didn't feel right.

By any sort of championship standards, they weren't even close.

Against a team that had been manhandled for 104 points in its previous three games, the Trojans did not score on a touchdown drive longer than three plays.

"I thought we were rolling. . . . I'll have to see the tape," Barkley said.

Against a Cougars offense that had scored five touchdowns before Saturday, the Trojans allowed a facemask-jamming, 13-play, 71-yard touchdown drive in the final moments.

"It stunk that they scored at the end," safety Taylor Mays said.

There was no hint of a floral scent at any point. There was no sustained push. There was no overwhelming intensity. There was no winning of wills.

Then, with 10:47 remaining in the game, there was complete embarrassment when USC could not convert a fourth-and-goal play from the one-yard line, C.J. Gable losing two yards on a pitch.

What happened to the famed USC sneak?

Where did Steve Sarkisian go again? Oh, yeah.

It was that kind of the night, the Trojans needing to show up in their Saturday best, but instead displaying the hint of grungy T-shirt and raggedy jeans that ruined them in their stunning loss to Washington and could surely wreck them again.

They were not disciplined.

They had 115 yards worth of penalties -- 75 yards in the first quarter alone -- that cost them drives and momentum.

"We have to stop that," center Kristofer O'Dowd said. "It is unacceptable to us."

They were not careful.

They fumbled three times, lost two of them, and that didn't even count two fumbled passes that cost them at least one touchdown.

"We have to see if we can clean things up," he said.

They were not special.

Even though new punter Jacob Harfman had several booming kicks, they blew an extra-point try on a mishandled snap and kicker Jordan Congdon was short on a 34-yard field-goal attempt.

They were not smart.

After their second touchdown in the first quarter, the coaching staff called a perfectly executed onside kick that was booted, and recovered, by Harfman.

Great idea, but why do that so early against an outclassed opponent? If you were going to allow such a surprise play to be put on film for future opponents to dissect, wouldn't you want to use it at a more critical time in a tougher game?

"They were giving it to us, we went ahead and took it, it was just good football," Carroll said.

In all, it was a 21-point victory against a 42-point underdog that was about half as good as it appeared.

The Coliseum fans were booing with 7:26 left in the first quarter, and I was surprised it took them that long.

Facing that hunt for dread October, the Trojans have a chance to climb back into the national championship picture, but not like this.

It's as if the constant changes in Carroll's coaching staff have led to an inconsistency in the teaching. Either that, or a bunch of kids need to get their ears cleaned out.

Whatever the problem, the Trojans' boneheaded plays are outshining their brilliant ones, and on Saturday that was too bad for a guy like Barkley, whose return from a shoulder injury was a virtual passing camp.

Yes, he can throw long, averaging 19 yards on his 13 completions. Yes, he can throw under pressure, hitting Damian Williams on a 57-yard touchdown pass with Travis Long in his face.

But, no, none of it matters if the Trojans don't behave.

"It was great to win, it was fun to win . . . but we've got a lot of work to do," Carroll said.

Carroll has always been able to justify his program's swagger with its smarts. But that doesn't work with this team.

These Trojans are playing down to the worst of the stereotypes that have dogged them over the years -- all Hollywood, no hard knocks.

They were supposed to return home Saturday to show that they had wised up.

We're still waiting.

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/BillPlaschke

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