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USC’s big slip throws the city for a loss

Times Staff Writer

First the Lakers melt down, and now this.

USC’s football program has been the pride of Los Angeles, at least for sports fans outside of Westwood, ever since Shaquille O’Neal left the Southland for South Beach and Kobe Bryant started making more headlines with his mouth than his jump shot.

With two national championships, three Heisman Trophy winners and tens of millions of dollars in revenue streaming in under Coach Pete Carroll’s leadership, it’s no wonder the motivational phrase emblazoned on USC’s playbook cover this season read “Do You Love It?”

But after one of the biggest upsets in college football history, the Trojans’ stunning 24-23 loss to Stanford on Saturday at the Coliseum, USC players and coaches might be asking their legion of fans a different question:

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“Do You (Still) Love Us?”

It did not seem that way when boos rained upon the Trojans as they left the field at halftime and after their 35-game home winning streak had officially ended.

“Believe me, inside I was booing too,” quarterback John David Booty said of the halftime serenade. “I was as frustrated as they were.”

The flogging continued on Internet message boards throughout the night and into Sunday morning, then started again on TV and radio talk shows, overshadowing the American League Division Series between the Angels and Boston Red Sox. (That 3-0 sweep was yet another blow to the Southland sports psyche.)

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“Pete has lost control of this team. . . . There is no discipline, no fight, no heart in many of the players. They are too busy reading their headlines,” read a post from one fan on WeAreSC.com.

Indeed, in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately town that is L.A., Carroll in the eyes of some went from genius to nitwit. And quarterback Booty went from Heisman Trophy candidate to in danger of losing his job.

All in the span of one football game.

Well, maybe two. USC’s sloppy three-point victory over Washington the week before was, in retrospect, a precursor.

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“I was in the NFL for 16 years -- it went week to week,” Carroll said of the extreme shifts in public opinion. “I’ve been through it all. . . it turns in the flick of an eye, so you have to remain humble throughout the whole process.”

The Trojans’ loss to 41-point underdog Stanford was only the latest in what has been a season of dramatic upsets in college football, starting with lower-division Appalachian State’s season-opening victory over perennial power Michigan on the Wolverines’ home field.

“No team is safe this year,” said retired West Virginia coach Don Nehlen. “We have seen more early season upsets than ever before.”

Now, in the sport’s convoluted system for determining a champion, those upsets are helping keep alive USC’s chances of playing for another national title.

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USC’s loss to Stanford dropped the Trojans eight spots to No. 10 in the Associated Press media poll, which is not a part of the Bowl Championship Series formula. But the Trojans fell only to No. 7 in both the coaches’ poll and the Harris Interactive poll, which are combined with computer data to determine the BCS standings.

Those standings come out for the first time next week and will eventually determine the participants in January’s championship game in New Orleans.

The difficulty of USC’s upcoming schedule, therefore, could actually work in the Trojans’ favor. USC still has games against top-15 teams California, Oregon and Arizona State, and victories would surely vault the Trojans back high in the ratings.

“The voters were awfully generous with them. They didn’t fall too far back,” said analyst Jerry Palm, publisher of College BCS.com. “It’s not completely over for them.”

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The Trojans have been through this before. Last season, they were high in the ratings when they lost to Oregon State in their seventh game. But they won their next four, and only a tipped pass in the season finale against UCLA kept them from making a third consecutive appearance in the BCS title game.

On Saturday, USC defensive end Lawrence Jackson harked back even further for inspiration.

“We lost in 2003 and found a way to get back to the top,” said Jackson, a fifth-year senior.

Jackson was referring to a triple-overtime defeat at California in USC’s fourth game that season. The loss was the Trojans’ last setback before embarking on a 34-game winning streak that produced a share of two national titles and did not end until Texas beat USC in the 2006 BCS title game at the Rose Bowl.

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On Sunday, though, Carroll and his staff were not concerned about polls, the BCS or national titles so much as fixing problems that have been plaguing the team.

“It’s real clear that we have fallen out of line with our philosophy that has guided this program for years; we’re turning the ball over too much,” said Carroll, whose record in six-plus seasons at USC is 69-13.

Booty threw four interceptions against Stanford and also cracked the tip of the middle finger on his throwing hand. Mark Sanchez, a sophomore from Orange County, will probably work some with the first-string offense this week while Booty’s condition is evaluated.

Meanwhile, receivers who replaced All-Americans Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith must stop dropping passes and help the quarterbacks establish rhythm and confidence.

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The offensive line cannot allow the quarterback to be sacked four times, as Booty was against Stanford, and must help USC run the ball effectively.

The Trojans also must eliminate special teams miscues. Against Washington, the Trojans had a punt blocked that set up a touchdown. On Saturday, a blocked extra-point attempt early in the game was ultimately the difference.

“In the middle of the season, good teams such as USC tend to get complacent and start having mental lapses,” former Arizona State coach Frank Kush said. “One of the biggest challenges as a head coach is fighting that complacency.”

In seasons past, Carroll and his teams have conquered such obstacles. The 56-year-old coach has shown an uncanny knack for recruiting top-flight talent and then motivating his players to consistently play at a high level.

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If Carroll can do that over the course of the rest of the season, USC could play for another national championship -- and the Stanford debacle could be largely forgotten.

If not, well, Kobe says he wants to be a good teammate and the Lakers open their season Oct. 30 against Houston.

--

gary.klein@latimes.com

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