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BILL PLASCHKE

At USC, it's so quiet you can hear a Heisman drop

The atmosphere is solemn, and solitary, as Trojans prepare for their first game under new Coach Lane Kiffin, Thursday at Hawaii. For a team on NCAA probation for the sins of the Pete Carroll/Reggie Bush era, the difference is startling — and it should be judged differently than its predecessors.

August 31, 2010|Bill Plaschke

The practice field looks half empty. The sidelines are nearly bare. A USC football team has never seemed more alone.

"It doesn't feel like the old days, that's for sure," assistant coach Kennedy Pola says. "It's just us out here, trying to get tougher, trying to get better."

The howling is muffled. The hitting is careful. The players enter the facility after touching a giant yellow sign reading "Lock In," then everything locks down.

"We've been hearing a lot of stuff for a long time," assistant coach Ed Orgeron says. "We're just keeping our mouths shut and working."

They undoubtedly will bounce onto the Aloha Stadium field Thursday night looking like any other Trojans team playing the part of hip island tourists for an opening game against Hawaii, but don't be fooled.

They will be Bermuda shorts. They will be sandals with socks. They will be square. They will be careful. They will be uncertain.

"I have never been more unsure of a team in my life," Coach Lane Kiffin said Tuesday before flying across the ocean to a brave new whirl. "New staff. Fewer players. New environment. It will be very interesting."

If you are one of those USC fans who feels that the two-year probation and 30 lost scholarships should not stop you from booing at this year's first Trojans stumble, you know I love you, but you might want to stop reading right now.

This will not be a normal Trojans team. It should not be judged by normal Trojans standards.

Last year, Pete Carroll's 9-4 season was considered a failure. This season, a Kiffin 9-4 could be a success.

These Trojans are immensely talented at the top, but as thin as a splinter on the bench. Scholarship reductions have left them short of bodies, and the frequent coaching changes in Carroll's final years led to recruiting mistakes that have left them with some players who don't belong.

These Trojans are not only a different team physically, but the new coaches are trying to make them a different team mentally, breaking down Carroll's air of entitlement with a sense of reason and responsibility.

During Tuesday's practice, barely two days before the season opener, the offense suddenly departed through the gates of Howard Jones Field, gathered briefly on the street outside, then slapped the "Lock In" sign again, and returned.

It turns out, Kiffin was angry with their play and told them to take a hike and find their focus.

A different season, different rules, different requirements.

"The wins and losses will take care of themselves," said Kiffin. "What I'm looking for is toughness and discipline."

Sounds like a plan.

This year's Trojans should be judged not only on the size of their victories, but on the grace and dignity with which they earn them. A sense of decency was missing from last season's team, and must be returned before greatness can follow.

"Put it this way," Kiffin said. "I don't want to see a guy celebrating a four-yard gain like he's just scored the winning touchdown."

This year's Trojans also should not be judged by the size of their defeats, but by the character they show in fighting to the end. They can get beat by Oregon, but they better not collapse like a rotten jack-o'-lantern.

If the Trojans were irked by Stanford's two-point conversion last year, well, they haven't seen anything yet. Jim Harbaugh's grudge is carried by many. If anybody can embarrass the Trojans this year, they're doing it, and this team should ultimately be judged by how it handles the hard times.

"I think everybody is quietly going to be taking their shots at us," Orgeron said. "But that's just what we want."

These Trojans shouldn't be judged by Heisman Trophy candidates — so far, there are none — but by players who battle until the final whistle.

These Trojans shouldn't be judged by big plays, but by consistent attention and effort.

These Trojans shouldn't be judged by the greatness of a Mike Garrett, but the resiliency of a Pat Haden.

"We can't win a BCS national championship," quarterback Matt Barkley said Tuesday. "But we can play championship football."

It starts Thursday night in Hawaii, and if you remember the last time they were there, in 2005, you'll remember a 63-17 victory that was the first step in a Heisman march for Reggie Bush.

These Trojans are paying the price for the selfishness and arrogance that led that march. These Trojans must find a new step, to a different cadence.

If nothing else, Kiffin seems ready.

On Tuesday he was stalking the field under a high sun while preparing his team for a trip to one of sunniest place on Earth. Yet, bless him, he wasn't wearing the shades.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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