Trojans, Pac-10 State Their Case It was a frustrating season for the USC Trojans' National Title hopes. After dismantling the vaunted Ohio State Buckeyes 35-3 in early September and achieving the No. 1 ranking, the Trojans rode a little to high on their Traveller horse and played their only bad half of football.
On the road in Corvallis, USC surrendered a 21-0 lead to Oregon State at halftime. The Trojans regrouped in the third quarter, closing the deficit to 21-14, and even after surrendering a touchdown with 2:39 left to fall behind by thirteen, USC answered with a score and was an onside kick away from having the ball and the chance to win the game. Alas, the Beavers scooped up the kick and ran out the clock for a 27-21 victory; it would be the only mark USC's otherwise exemplary 12-1 season.
And, although, it was only September it would also be the only thing that kept USC from playing for a National Championship.
While the September loss was extremely disappointing, there was no way to know just how frustrating that bad half would be during the rest of the season.
Surely, the other power conferences' undefeateds would fall; and sure enough, they did.
- Florida lost two days later at home to Mississippi.
- Oklahoma stumbled two weeks after that in a double-digit neutral site loss to Texas.
- On November 1, Texas gave up 39 points and lost to Texas Tech; the Trojans ran its winning streak to five games, in which they gave up a total of 20 points and posted three shutouts.
- Penn State lost its perfect season a week after Texas fell on the road against unranked Iowa.
- Texas Tech was bulldozed by 44 in late November.
- And, by the time, Alabama lost by eleven in the SEC Championship in the first week of December, it would have made sense for the Trojans to have made it back to the top.
Before losing to (currently) No. 17 Oregon, Oregon State had reeled off seven wins in eight games with their only loss coming on the road against (still) undefeated and (currently) No. 6 Utah and achieved a ranking as high as seventeen. Even after the loss to Oregon ruined the Beavers hopes of winning the conference, they remained ranked in the Top 25 in all three human polls (AP, Coaches, Harris).
Even so, that bad first half in late September on the road against a team that ended up being recognized as a Top 25 team was enough to wreck the Trojans in the National Title race.
Part of the reason USC never made it back into contention is that voters don't appreciate defensive dominance. Aside from the Oregon State loss, USC's defense gave up more than 10 points in a game only twice: at Stanford, when the Cardinal scored a touchdown with no time left to cut into a large deficit for a 45-23 outcome; and Thursday against Penn State in the Rose Bowl (which we'll talk about in a little while).
USC's defense shutout three different opponents, including two in a row. Against then-No. 5 Ohio State, then-No. 21 Cal (who averaged over 30 points/game), and Notre Dame (who didn't get a first down until that last play of the third quarter), USC yielded a single field goal. Oregon's offense was seventh in the country this season, averaging 41.9 points/game; against the Trojans, it managed just ten points, and the touchdown it scored would be the only one USC surrendered in six home games at the Coliseum.
In the regular season, USC finished first in points against at 7.8 points/game (TCU was second at 10.9), first in yards against at 206 yards/game (TCU was second at 215, Alabama was a distant third at 256). Giving up 1474 yards in the air, the Trojans yielded the fewest pass yards by nearly 450 yards (New Mexico St. was second at 1913), and they were fourth in run defense at 999 yards on the season.
Despite dominance truly as strong as the Trojan Wall, USC failed to get the recognition it deserved. The value of defense in college football can be summed up on ESPN.com, which fails to even list defensive team statistics.
USC's offense finished with the thirteenth best offense at 37.5 points/game. Critics would remind me that Oklahoma's offense scored a national best 54 points/game, far more than the Trojans. But, I'll remind critics that while USC's Pete Carroll shuts down his offense in the second half of a blowout to show some respect to the opponent, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops prefers to embarrass and demoralize his opponents for the sake of his ranking.
Case in point:
- USC led both Washington State and Washington 42-0 at halftime. Against WSU, the Trojans attempted just one pass; against UW, they attempted three.
- When Oklahoma led Missouri 41-14 in the Big 12 Championship, Stoops decided to plead his case to the voters in a way that Carroll never would, he threw on eight of sixteen fourth quarter plays and racked up three touchdowns in mercilessly thrashing the Tigers 62-21.
Stoops' offense made Big 12 defenses look like high school teams, which isn't overly impressive since that statement sums up the Big 12 defenses anyway. At the same time, Oklahoma's defense fit the high school stereotype. Its 24.5 points against/game was good for 57th in the country, and 359 yards against/game was even worse at 65th. Think about it!? Twenty-four and a half points per game is more points than USC's defense gave up in twelve of thirteen games this season; the only time USC gave up more was the 27 in the loss to Oregon State.
It's ridiculous that a team so inferior, like Oklahoma, could possibly try to stake a claim to the National Championship over a dominant team, like the Trojans.
Alas, that's the case, because aside from defense, USC was also penalized for being in a "weak" conference. The Pac-10 was revered as far inferior conference to the Big 12, and, thus, because USC played a "weaker" schedule, USC was believed to have been a lesser team than Oklahoma.
The Pac-10 was in the slow lane from the get-go this season after it went 0-4 against the Mountain West Conference on September 13. This disaster weakened the conference's strength for the rest of the year, especially since the MWC isn't recognized as a power conference.
However, those losses were significantly over weighted in retrospect. Before being dethroned by the perfect Pac-10 this year, the MWC held the best record in Bowl games last year at 4-1. It is undoubtedly better than any other non-power conference and could certainly make the case that it is better than some of the power conferences. Entering Bowl Season, the AP and Coaches Poll ranked three MWC teams in the Top 25, which is more than the ACC and Big East and the same amount as the Pac-10. In fact, with the Coaches ranking Utah seventh, TCU eleventh, and BYU sixteenth, only the Big 12 had more teams ranked in the first sixteen.
Utah has a chance to go undefeated against Alabama Friday night, and TCU (I already alluded to their vaunted defense) upped its stock with a win over then-undefeated Boise State in the Poinsettia Bowl. BYU fell to the Pac-10's own, Arizona, who was under appreciated all season and didn't lose a game by more than 10 points (which, just for the record, is how many Oklahoma lost by).
It's time to put thes negative connotations toward the Pac-10 rest. Even its harshest critics must finally fess up and admit that the Pac-10 is much better than everyone says it was. With USC's demolition of the Nittany Lions Thursday, the Pac-10 finished Bowl Season at a perfect 5-0, with three upsets.
- Dec. 20: Arizona upsets No. 16 BYU 31-21 in the Las Vegas Bowl.
- Dec. 27: Cal beats Miami 24-17 in the Emerald Bowl.
- Dec. 30: No. 17 Oregon upsets No. 13 Oklahoma State 42-31 in the Holiday Bowl.
- Dec. 31: Oregon State upsets No. 20 Pittsburgh 3-0 in the Sun Bowl.
- Jan. 1: No. 5 USC beats No. 8 Penn State 38-24 in the Rose Bowl.
Fair enough to say, the Pac-10 was better than it was said to have been. Aside from USC's opening loss to Oregon State, it dominated the conference. The a fore mentioned Arizona gave USC a run for its money, 17-10 in Tucson, and Cal kept the Trojans close in a 17-3 outcome (although, true to form for Carroll, USC ran down the clock on 4th down for a loss of downs at the Cal 15 instead of adding points). Excepting those three games, USC beat the other six Pac-10 opponents by at least 20 points, including a 44-10 whitewashing of Oregon, who, with their win the Holiday Bowl, will finish somewhere near the Top 10 in the final rankings.
Non-conference, USC took on two-time National Championship loser, Ohio State completely blasting the Buckeyes and ensuring they never had a shot at a third straight Championship appearance. Meanwhile, it demolished Virginia on the road 52-7 (the Cavaliers had a sub-par year, but had been ranked in the Top 25 in 2007), and Hawaii Bowl Champion Notre Dame 38-3 (a game in which, as previously mentioned, the Irish didn't get a first down until the last play of the third quarter).
This non-conference schedule far surpasses that of Oklahoma's. Oklahoma did handle the Big East champion, Cincinnati Bearcats, but as mentioned previously, the Big East is an inferior power conference. Despite being ranked twelfth entering Bowl Season, Cincinnati was shut down 20-7 by Virignia Tech in the Orange Bowl, and during the regular season, they barely managed to sneak by Akron and Hawaii and were destroyed 40-16 by UConn.
Oklahoma's other two non-conference opponents were Chattanooga and Washington, who combined for a 1-23 record on the season. Chattanooga went 1-11 playing an FCS [Div. 1-AA] schedule, with losses like a 42-7 one against 8-4 Elon (who didn't even play an FBS team). Chattanooga's only win was against Cumberland College (who, for trivia's sake, holds the distinction for worst loss in the history of American football, a 222-0 loss to Georgia Tech in 1916). Washington finished the season at 0-12, which included losses to both Oklahoma (55-14) and USC (56-0).
All in all, it was inexplicable that the Trojans were not given the opportunity to compete for a National Championship. Lee Corso said it so eloquently before the game Thursday's GameDay at the Rose Bowl: "They're getting screwed. They should be in Miami." If anyone doubted Corso, that doubt was laid to rest by halftime on Thursday.
Penn State managed to stick with the Trojans for a quarter, responding to a Damian Williams touchdown catch with a Daryll Clark quarterback scramble to tie the game at seven with four seconds left in the first quarter. However, the second quarter belonged to USC and by the time the whistle blew for halftime, the Trojans had scored 24 unanswered points and led by a dominating 31-7 score. For all intents and purposes, the game was over.
Sitting behind the Penn State end zone, I noticed Penn State's once rowdy fans were quiet, and the Lions' band and cheerleaders had a look of defeat on their faces as they prepared for the halftime show. The last straw came out when on the first play after a USC's touchdown with PSU trailing 24-7, Stephfon (a "ph" and an "f," isn't that redundant!?) Green took a screen pass from Clark on the first play and rumbled for 30 yards, only to fumble and have USC recover at the end of the run. The Trojans got help from a 15 yard facemask penalty, and C.J. Gable rushed the final 20 yards up the middle for the Trojans' second touchdown in as many minutes.
Halftime prompted the talking heads to finally ask the question that everyone in the Trojan Family had been asking for weeks, "How is this team not playing for the National Championship!?"
To Penn State's credit, it put up a fight in the second half. After a scoreless third quarter, the two teams exchanged touchdowns early in the fourth quarter, and Penn State added ten points late to make the final at 38-24 look closer than the game ever was in the second half. Still, the Trojans dominance was realized, but it was too little, too late for the team's National Championship hopes.
Thursday's loss at the hands of the Trojans shouldn't be viewed as a failure by Penn State; Penn State was a good team that finished the season at 11-2. Instead, the win should be viewed as a statement from USC.
In four years working with the Trojans, I've never known Pete Carroll to make a statement directly about the National Championship, but on Thursday, as the voters questioned their decisions, he finally told everyone how he really felt and what they'd all come to realize. When asked by John Saunders about the National Championship game, Carroll said, "In all due respect, those are two great programs; I don't think anyone can beat the Trojans this year."
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