There was a snap and crackle in the air at the Coliseum on Saturday night, not to mention plenty of pop in the arm of new quarterback John Fox.
USC lost to Florida State, and a loss is still a loss. A moral victory is still a loss. But there are losses and total losses, and this one was not of the latter variety.
On this hot and steamy night, with 72,783 in the stands and the normal air of expectation for an opening game, last year’s 6-6 record needed some sort of exorcism. And the Trojan John Boys, Coach Robinson and quarterback Fox, pretty well got that done for all but the purest purists and the hardest hard-liners.
Bobby Bowden, the veteran and highly popular coach of the powerhouse Seminoles, said lots of predictably nice things about the Trojans in his press gathering afterward, and those kinds of statements can, and do, flow nicely after a victory.
But later, he took an L.A. reporter off to the side, acting like a man who felt he had something very important to say and wanted to make sure he was heard clearly.
“This was a different team,” he said. “I’ll be honest with you, we watched lots of the films from last year and that team just didn’t have any of the stuff I saw tonight. I told John [Robinson] that. This is a team on some sort of a mission.”
Bowden also said he told his team afterward that he was happy they won, but that they hadn’t deserved to. That may be winners’ hyperbole, since Florida State did dominate statistically and did put away the 14-7 victory with a 97-yard drive. But it also is vastly different than much of the postgame assessing that went on in at least six Trojan opponent locker rooms last year.
For USC, it was almost as if some of what Sammy Knight left on the field in that final emotional victory over Notre Dame last year stayed in the Coliseum, or at least in the minds of some of these Trojans. USC went into that post-Thanksgiving game with a 5-6 record--loss No. 6 being a crushing upset at the hands of UCLA--and facing a non-winning streak against the Irish so long that the jokes about dogs living and dying without ever seeing SC beat the Irish had become legendary.
But in that season-ender against the Irish, senior Knight single-handedly willed the Trojans to play hard, hit hard, be mean and ornery and get the Notre Dame monkey off their back.
And early Saturday night, there was an immediate sense of more of the same. Mark Cusano made a hit and caused a fumble and got in the opponent’s face. Brian Kelly made the corner of the field he was playing a no-entry zone--so much so that Bowden walked over to him after one particular play and told him to stop playing so well--and that left Florida State’s veteran quarterback Thad Busby to look more frequently than he wanted to the other corner of the field and USC’s Daylon McCutcheon, a likely All-American.
There was a timid, hesitant, almost plodding nature to last year’s Trojan team. There was none of that Saturday night, victory or no.
The success stories were easily identifiable:
No. 1--Fox, the sophomore quarterback from Corona, who won the job but had no experience, no reputation and a huge chance to be a bust, was anything but.
“We have a quarterback. That’s no longer an issue,” Robinson said.
And Fox, remarkably, not only did many right things, but said the right things afterward, too. Example: There were no alibis for his fourth-down pass late in the fourth quarter, when he threw to a short man rather than looking long, completing the pass but not getting enough yardage to keep the last-gasp drive alive.
“That was an example of me not thinking,” he said. “I will learn from that.”
No. 2--Middle linebacker Chris Claiborne, a sophomore from Riverside. It was simple. He was everywhere.
No. 3--Robinson himself. Last year, he took his team, with veteran quarterback Brad Otton, off to the Meadowlands to play in the Kickoff Classic against Penn State. He decided his team was veteran, ready and could handle both a midseason game plan and the bright lights of the Big Apple, even though it was only late August. The Trojans crashed and burned as Coach Joe Paterno sent a slashing sophomore named Curtis Ennis trampling all over them. It was on national television, and it was a national embarrassment.
Saturday, Robinson eased Fox into the spotlight. The first half was played close to the belt. The USC defense did the dominating, while Fox and his offense were adjusting, getting comfortable, getting rid of all the nerves and demons that arrive in the hearts and minds of 19-year-olds suddenly plopped in the pressure-cooker.
By the second half, Fox was sprinting out of the pocket and hitting receivers, running the huddle like Bobby Layne and looking like anything but a Trojan greenhorn.
“He sure didn’t look like the rookie we expected,” said senior linebacker Sam Cowart, the heart of the Seminole defense.
Robinson summed it up best.
“We are a work in progress,” he said.
As opposed to last year, when it was a work with no progress.