September 14, 1997 in Sports

Usc Dazed, Confused After Setback

Steve Bisheff Orange County Register
 

This is not your father’s USC.

In fact, this is unlike any USC football team in recent memory. These guys can’t run. They can’t block. They can’t do much of anything on offense.

And now they’re getting pushed around by teams that used to be Pac-10 patsies. I mean, it’s one thing to get mugged by Florida State. It’s another to get outmuscled by Washington State.

“We choked on 1,000 errors … we botched so many things up,” said coach John Robinson, whose job status is suddenly shaky all over again.

After that 28-21 embarrassment Saturday, the Trojans are 0-2 at the start of the season for the first time since 1960, or a few months before John F. Kennedy was elected president.

Wait. It gets better. The visiting Cougars hadn’t won in L.A. in 40 - that’s 4-0 - years, and yet they came in and pushed the Trojans all over the Coliseum lawn. They acted the way USC used to act.

They stuffed the guys in cardinal and gold. The “U” in Tailback U. now stands for U-turn. That’s the general direction these Trojans tend to run in 1997. Their two principal tailbacks combined to gain a sickly 34 yards in 19 carries against Washington State.

If they could today, those Heisman Trophy busts in Heritage Hall would be cowering in shame.

But don’t throw all the blame on Delon Washington and Malaefou MacKenzie. It’s not that the tailbacks aren’t running into the holes. There are no holes.

“Everybody always says USC’s offensive line is big and strong, but we’re just not getting the job done,” guard Travis Claridge said. “I don’t know what it is. I don’t know how to explain it. I don’t know what’s going on.”

Here, Travis, allow me to help. This is just part of it:

-The offensive line that was supposed to be vastly improved over a year ago really isn’t. Maybe the truth is, this is just a less-than-mediocre group. It certainly looks that way. Last week, they were excused because Florida State has a great defense. I hate to break this to you guys, but Washington State does not. USC rushed for a grand total of 31 yards and a 1.1 yard-per-carry average on Saturday. Two weeks ago, UCLA’s Skip Hicks rushed for 190 yards vs. the Cougars all by himself.

-Sure, guard Chris Brymer, probably the best blocker on the team, and fellow starter Phalen Pounds were both out with injuries for this one, and that makes a difference. But, sorry, it shouldn’t have made that much difference.

-The Mistakes-R-Us mode that began a year ago has returned at an even more alarming pace. The Trojans couldn’t get the proper number of people on the field, they committed costly personal fouls and they once again mismanaged the clock, using their last time out trying to play catch-up in the second half with some 17 minutes still left in the game.

Those, friends, are coaching mistakes.

-The complete absence of a running game puts too much pressure on sophomore John Fox, who is still learning and still making mistakes. If the burden for scoring points rests solely on his untested shoulder pads the rest of the way, the Trojans’ season is only starting to get ugly.

-The mobile, roll-out-the-quarterback offense USC had been talking up all spring and summer has yet to surface in the first two games. Isn’t Fox supposed to be one of the quickest players on the squad running the 40-yard dash? Isn’t he the most physical runner the Trojans have had at the position in three or four decades? So how come, with the tailbacks rendered virtually useless between the tackles, USC doesn’t let him roll out to buy time and apply some pressure to the opposing defense?

-The defense has performed even better than expected thus far. It shut out quarterback Ryan Leaf, who’ll be playing in the NFL some day, for almost 26 minutes of the second half, before Kevin McKenzie broke free to spear a Leaf spiral one-handed and go 51 yards for the dramatic game-winner. Cedric Jefferson, Brian Kelly, Daylon McCutcheon, Chris Claiborne, they’re all doing their share. It’s the USC guys on the other side of the line of scrimmage who aren’t.

-Maybe, just maybe, Washington State is a lot better than everybody thought. Maybe the two best teams in the Pac-10 reside in the same state. Hey, it’s possible, but judging from Saturday’s results around the rest of the country, I wouldn’t count on it. And that makes USC’s outlook even more depressing.

If the Trojans couldn’t run on these guys, how will they run on Washington? Or Arizona State? And how will they possibly keep up with a UCLA offense that needed a computer-speed modem to keep up with all its scoring in Texas?

The sad fact is, USC looks like another middle-of-the-Pac-10, mediocre team at the moment. It is now 6-8 in Robinson’s past 14 games, and no matter how well it recruits, - and yes, the blue-chippers are still showing up every week on the sideline - none of it means anything unless the program starts winning again.


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