Carroll stands tall amid USC's storm

November 5th, 2006  
Team Infidel

Topic: Carroll stands tall amid USC's storm


By Jon Wilner

Mercury News

LOS ANGELES - There is no panic in the streets, on campus, at the practice field or around the locker room. But there is concern.
The USC Trojans are no longer a dominating, high-scoring, star-studded team for the ages.
They aren't even an undefeated, third-ranked, find-ways-to-win team for this season.
After a 33-31 defeat at Oregon State -- their first regular-season loss in three years -- the Trojans have come back to the pack. They're a second-place team searching for answers, hoping for a major bowl bid, trying to get better.
``It felt surreal,'' junior defensive end Lawrence Jackson said of the loss at Oregon State. ``We know we lost. We're not hiding from it. But they didn't physically beat us. We beat ourselves. I think we have more focus now.''
The man in the middle of it all, Trojans Coach Pete Carroll, seems to be relishing the opportunity -- the chance to rally his team, beat Stanford today, scale the rankings, play in January and show the college football world that he can get it done without a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback and a Heisman Trophy-winning tailback.
Carroll is as competitive as they come. Right now, this week, with this team, he's in his element.
``We have a base philosophy that gives me a springboard to deal with stuff like this,'' Carroll said Wednesday. ``It's real clear where I go right now with these guys. We don't deal with stuff we can't control, and we don't worry about things that are in the past.''
That approach worked perfectly the last time USC dropped a regular-season game, on Sept. 27, 2003. A triple-overtime defeat at Cal sent the third-ranked Trojans tumbling to 10th. But they regrouped, won the Pacific-10 Conference, beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl and claimed a share of the national championship.
Carroll used that example to bolster his team's spirits after the loss at Oregon State.
``I asked them: What happened after that game?'' he said. ``We didn't lose for a long time, and we won the championship. People said, `You can't do it.' But we didn't listen.''
Monday, the No. 9 Trojans practiced after a loss for the first time in three years. The mood was serious but not somber -- fewer laughs than usual, more instruction from the coaches, and more running (fumble the ball, take a lap).
Seniors such as linebacker Oscar Lua and receiver Steve Smith set the tone, just as the '03 seniors had done.
``We haven't been sloshing around, thinking about the loss,'' Smith said. ``It's over with now. The mood has been up.''
But that doesn't mean the Trojans are a finished product. They aren't even close.
The public perception of USC was shaped not only by the success of its predecessors but also by its performance in the season opener: a 50-14 demolition of Arkansas that convinced the college football world the Trojans had picked up where they left off.
But reality quickly set in. The Trojans struggled to beat teams they used to dominate. They did not create as many turnovers, did not record as many sacks, did not make as many big plays. They did not put teams away, surviving instead on grit and resourcefulness.
``We don't have a lot of the big names, so there was going to be a drop-off,'' Smith said. ``We have a lot of young guys.''
When the loss finally came, on a foggy day in Corvallis, it was as much a result of USC's mistakes as Oregon State's exploits. The Trojans committed four turnovers, which led to three Oregon State field goals, and allowed OSU to return a punt for a touchdown. In their minds, they gave away 16 points in a two-point loss.
And that, as much as anything, concerns Carroll. From 2003-05, the Trojans were first or second in the country in turnover margin. This season, they are 71st.
Sure, they have inexperienced ballhandlers at quarterback (John David Booty) and tailback (Chauncey Washington, who fumbled twice against OSU). But the defense is not forcing as many turnovers. Add to that mix the dearth of big plays on offense, and USC's margin for error is much smaller than in recent years.
``The turnovers are a big deal,'' Smith said. ``It's been tough, but we're trying to battle through it. That's been coach's emphasis this week.''
Carroll liked what he saw.
``All three days this week have been very much like what we're used to,'' he said. ``The competitive level. The energy is there. The focus is there.''

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