Trojans on the Ropes After Notre Dame : College football: USC looking for improvement Saturday against Washington.


For a fleeting moment Tuesday, John Robinson's media luncheon became the famous scene from "On the Waterfront."

There at the head of the table sat Marlon Brando, a.k.a. Robinson, who coulda had class, coulda been a contendah.

"We were given a chance to prove we were contenders for national honors, and we blew it," the USC football coach said.

"And it was a total team effort; everyone did lousy--players and coaches."

He described the charter flight home from Saturday's 38-10 trouncing at Notre Dame.

"Personally, it was very painful and very long," he said.

"On the plane home, if I could have opened the window . . . I might be slogging through the woods right now, outside Oklahoma City."

Some might wonder if the Trojans went to Notre Dame with a skewed sense of how good they were. Their six victories had been over teams with a combined 14-28 record. Notre Dame was 5-2 but its opponents were 27-17-3.

And one might even wonder if the USC football program has surged as far back as many seem to think, in the post-Larry Smith era.

True, Robinson is working on his third consecutive bowl-bound team and is 22-9-1. But against Notre Dame and UCLA, the Trojans are 0-5-1 since his return.

The first-unit talent on this team is clearly superior to the first two teams of his second term, and so is the depth.

But continuing losses to Notre Dame and UCLA will cast lengthening shadows, even if teams such as this one reach the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day.

Robinson, talking about the Notre Dame game for what he said he hoped would be the last time, said even a halftime speech about the miracle comeback in the 1974 Notre Dame-USC game didn't work. "I told 'em I was involved in a Notre Dame game where we were down 24-0 at halftime and came out and scored 55 points, but it didn't work."

His 6-0 team, he said, might have been trying too hard.

"In the film, we had defensive players trying to make plays they shouldn't have. We had guys coming off the line too high, their heads up, looking around, wondering where the ball was. That comes with trying too hard, losing concentration."

Of Notre Dame's successful screen and draw plays, Robinson said, "They ran those plays well, but our kids seemed stuck in the ground, like they were the last people in the stadium to recognize what kind of play it was."

His players must now go from Notre Dame Stadium to another inhospitable venue, Washington's Husky Stadium in Seattle.

"We're going to rebuild our confidence this week and focus on making sure we all know we're still a good team that can still play a great game and win a conference championship," he said.

It's a time for leadership, he said, and wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, for one, said he would answer the call.

"When we hit that practice field Tuesday, Notre Dame will be ancient history," he said Monday.

"And as a leader of this team, I'm going to make sure every one of us realizes that while our national championship dream was taken away, we can't let anyone take away our Rose Bowl dream."

Senior center Jeremy Hogue seemed midway between South Bend pain and the promise of Seattle.

"It's different for the younger guys, who'll get more shots at Notre Dame," he said.

"For me, it's a terrible disappointment, not to have been part of a team that snapped that streak [USC is 0-12-1 against Notre Dame since 1983]. But if we're going to salvage anything, this is the week we've got to do it.

"There are a lot of Rose Bowl implications to everything we do this week. And I think the mood is right. A lot of disappointment is still there, but I think if we could vote on going up there and playing Washington tomorrow, everyone would raise their hands."

Senior linebacker Scott Fields said he was one of those Robinson meant when the coach said too many defensive players were trying to make too many plays.

"I was jumping around, trying to make plays elsewhere instead of what I was responsible for," he said.

"I'm supposed to hang back on the weak side. Twice I didn't, trying to make a play, and we got hurt. It helped to see the film, to see why we lost.

"And I don't expect to see this team do that again."

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