Wednesday, October 18, 2006

USA Today: Bottom line on Southern Cal: 6-0

By David Leon Moore, USA TODAY

LOS ANGELES — No. 2 in the country. No. 3 in the Pacific-10 Conference?  That's the perception some people have this week of Southern California, whose three-year run at or near the top of the polls continues despite a series of squeaker-type wins against supposed mediocre, middle-of-the-pack Pac-10 teams.  Arizona State quarterback Rudy Carpenter said after his team lost to the Trojans 28-21 Saturday that California and Oregon, both of whom crushed the Sun Devils, are better than USC. Records don't agree. USC is 6-0. Cal is 6-1, Oregon 5-1.  The Bowl Championship Series rankings don't agree. USC is No. 2. Cal is No. 10, Oregon No. 14. But comparative scores show there might be something to the perception. USC beat Arizona State by seven points and needed a late drive to break a 21-21 tie. Cal beat the Sun Devils 49-21; Oregon beat them 48-13. And Cal beat Oregon 45-24.

Moreover, there is a perception that the Trojans, who have 30 consecutive home victories and 27 in a row in the Pac-10, are going down any minute.

Well, maybe not any minute. They have a bye this week and then play Oregon State (3-3) and Stanford (0-7). So they could easily reach 8-0.  But then the Trojans, on consecutive weeks, play Oregon, Cal, Notre Dame and UCLA. That's when the naysayers say it all ends, for a variety of reasons.

Here they are, point by point:

•PERCEPTION: The offensive explosiveness is gone.

A CLOSER LOOK: Indeed, the fear factor of facing the Trojans offense has diminished. Last season, the final campaign of Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and LenDale White, the Trojans, in their 6-0 start, averaged 613 yards of offense, 8.0 yards a play and 48.7 points. This season, they produce 396 yards a game, 5.6 a play and 30 points. "It hasn't happened the way we're used to," USC coach Pete Carroll says.

•PERCEPTION: Quarterback John David Booty can't connect on the deep ball.

A CLOSER LOOK: Booty has thrown for 226.2 yards a game with 13 touchdown passes and four interceptions. Through six games last year, Leinart actually threw for fewer TDs (12) and more interceptions (five).  But Leinart averaged 324.5 yards in those games, and his two primary receivers, Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith, were almost unstoppable. Jarrett averaged 94.7 yards receiving a game and caught nine TD passes, and Smith averaged 110.8 yards a game. This season, Jarrett is averaging 54.4 yards a game and Smith 70.5, though both have been slowed by injuries.  Carroll says that after the bye week the passing game should be "much better. We've been playing without D.J. and Steve being 100% for almost a month."

•PERCEPTION: The Trojans haven't found a go-to tailback.

A CLOSER LOOK: It figured to be difficult to replace Thunder (White) and Lightning (Bush), and it has been. Through six games in '05, the 1-2 punch averaged a combined 233.8 rushing yards a game with 20 TDs. The top two rushers this year, junior Chauncey Washington and freshman Emmanuel Moody, are averaging a combined 137.2 yards with five TDs.  Washington, though, seemed to come of age in the fourth quarter Saturday, carrying the Trojans on the final drive, totaling 64 yards in 10 carries on a 14-play TD drive. "That's what we've been waiting for with Chauncey," Carroll says.

•PERCEPTION: The defense lacks playmakers, is thin in the secondary and nothing special along the defensive line.

A CLOSER LOOK: Statistically, the defense this year has been tougher, giving up 282.3 yards and 15 points a game, compared to 350.3 yards and 20 points through six games last year.  But the Trojans have failed to produce key stops, and here are at least two reasons: They have only five interceptions, compared with 11 through six games last year, and they have just nine sacks, compared with 19 in '05.  Carroll says the Trojans would win bigger if they improved their turnover margin, though it is not all that different from a year ago: +3 compared with +6 in '05.

•PERCEPTION: The Trojans simply lost too much, and for all their high school All-Americans, the talent difference between them and others is just not as great as it was the last several years.

A CLOSER LOOK: Could be.

"Matt's not here. Reggie's not here. That's the facts," Carroll says. "This is a different year, a different team. "The challenges are different. But to be 6-0 with a young team just hitting its stride, I'm jacked about what we're doing. "We're fortunate to be 6-0, but we've deserved every win." How good some of USC's youngsters are will be more fully understood in November. So far, though, however beatable they appear, no one's done it.


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