You could feel them in the frustrated waving of Matt Barkley's arms. You could see them in the balls dropping from Curtis McNeal's and Robert Woods' fingers. You could hear them in whistles for helmet hits, late hits, and one lost soul who actually ran off the wrong side of the field.
One week after their season's first loss, on a day when everyone expected a glittery homecoming parade, the Trojans' muddy and difficult march continued. In the wake of Saturday's shirt-drenching 27-9 victory over Cal, a season that began decorated in exclamation points has crystallized into a question mark.
What happened to a USC team that last season outscored its final four opponents by 101 points? What happened to a college football team so potentially overwhelming it began this season ranked No. 1 even though it had not played a meaningful game in two years?
And, goodness, what happened to the Coliseum? It was the only thing that wasn't rumbling Saturday, as many of the 83,421 fans sat in quiet confusion and perhaps concern. The heat turned the place into a swamp. The tepid Trojan attack turned the place into a church. The clearly outmanned Bears had the ball in the USC red zone late in the third quarter with a chance to tie the game, which would have pretty much turned the place upside down.
For most of the afternoon, it was so quiet you could hear a DirecTV subscription drop. Oh yeah, this was the first best test of the Pac-12 Networks, and DirecTV was the biggest Los Angeles-area TV service that flunked.
After building its brands by wooing subscribers with their sports packages — folks like me — DirecTV has yet to reach agreement to air the new Pac-12 Networks, which means multitudes of Southland fans had no televised access to Saturday's Trojans game. Last week UCLA fans with DirecTV were shut out, and now USC fans know what it feels like, falling from the top of the polls to completely off the air.
A more cynical sort might snort that, ah, given the tenor of this game, it's just as well it missed lots of living rooms. But there were good things too. While fans didn't exactly miss a rebirth, they certainly missed some rebuilding.
The defense was tremendous, holding a Cal offense that scored four touchdowns at Ohio State last week to zero here. The running game found its legs, with nearly 300 rushing yards against an exhausted Cal defense. Even the kicking game was strong. That guy wearing No. 48 was once again Andre Heidari, not some impostor, and he actually did kick two necessary field goals.
"It was a long week, and it's good to get that taste out of our mouths," said safety T.J. McDonald as he ran off the field with a tight grin.
Truly, it was a bit of a sweet ending for a team that spent the last few days fighting through the bitterness that followed their fall from the unbeatens. Their 21-14 loss to Stanford reverberated nationwide, and the kids spent the week shouldering the burden of disillusionment.
"At the end of the day, we are extremely proud of our players.... There were a lot of people trying to get in there and tear them apart," said Coach Lane Kiffin.
The problem is there's still a bit of straining occurring. There's still something about the fabric of this team that doesn't seem right. The steady Barkley and his brilliant receivers don't seem to be reading the same playbook. The celebrated veterans and highly touted newcomers don't seem to be meshing yet.
Perhaps a metaphor for this season could be found Saturday at the literal center of this season, senior leader Khaled Holmes. Many blamed last week's offensive breakdown on the absence of the injured Holmes, and he returned to the lineup Saturday to the largest pregame-introduction ovation for anyone not named Barkley. He responded by playing brilliantly, particularly when flattening a defender on Redd's 33-yard touchdown run to start the scoring.
Yet with 9:40 remaining in the game, Holmes ended a play writhing on the ground in apparent pain. He was slowly assisted to the sidelines, where he was lifted on to a trainers table in apparently more pain. Yes, it seems, he reinjured the ankle.
"We're pretty beat up," said Kiffin. "They seem tired to me."
Nobody seems more mentally exhausted right now than Barkley, who continues to put on a positive face despite the continuing trouble. The now-distant Heisman candidate threw for just 192 yards Saturday with as many interceptions — two — as touchdowns. He was picked off on a short pass that was a miscommunication with Woods. He was picked off after a tipped pass. He threw behind Lee on a potential touchdown pass. And he bounced a pass in front of the end zone.
"We left a lot of points on the board," Barkley said. "It's not the recipe you want."
The win was what everyone wanted, but the style was not. There was recovery and relief, but you could barely hear it through the rumblings.