Without saying anything, USC says plenty about what the McKnight case means

It wasn't so much a game as a deposition.

On a muddy football field, through a winter mist, the USC football team finally, clearly addressed the ongoing NCAA investigation.

In a statement sworn on the reputation of their star running back, the Trojans acknowledged they may have broken the NCAA law.

Not that they actually said anything.

Joe McKnight's absence said it all.

McKnight was held out of Saturday's Emerald Bowl because of worries he had violated rules by driving a car owned by a businessman with former sports marketing ties.

While his team dirtied its uniforms on AT&T Park's makeshift field, McKnight watched in a dry cardinal sweatsuit from an upstairs suite.

When McKnight joined his team on the field afterward for the celebration of a 24-13 victory over Boston College, I approached him for an interview, but a team official jumped between us.

Guy by the name of Pete Carroll.

"No, Bill, not now," the coach said politely, his arms draped loosely around my shoulders as he walked off the field between me and McKnight. "The kid has been through a lot this week, he's not going to answer anything else."

If USC's response to the McKnight situation is any predictor, Carroll might be required to run that same sort of interference with the NCAA.

Whether or not McKnight committed an infraction, the fact that USC was worried enough about it to hold him out of a bowl game illustrates the lack of "institutional control" that is the focus of the NCAA investigation.

Yes, they showed control on Saturday. But the situation could have been avoided if they had showed it earlier.

If the Trojans had control, when the story of McKnight and the car appeared in The Times on Dec. 19, they would have been answering the questions instead of asking them.

If the Trojans had control, they would have been able to stand behind the player instead of banning him.

If the Trojans had control, they would not have started this game playing defense.

"There wasn't enough time to gather enough information to make it clear-cut," said Carroll of USC's decision.

Not enough time to gather information? You mean that the ownership of the car driven by one of your three most high-profile players is still such a mystery to you in the final days of the season that you need more than a week to figure it out?

A team with institutional control settles the McKnight issue in hours, not days. By keeping him off the field Saturday, USC showed the NCAA confusion, not compliance.

"The university felt that's what had to happen," Carroll said.

Notice he referred to the university instead of owning the decision himself. This is because Carroll didn't agree with the university.

Thus Saturday marked not only a rare time that USC publicly acknowledged a possible breaking of rules, but also offered the rare revelation of a possible break between its highest-paid employee and his bosses.

A nutty day indeed.

"I'd go about it differently," Carroll said. "I think we should take care of our guys first."

Carroll later admitted that maybe he's being too emotional about it but stood by his statement.

"I understand the university is just covering its bases; I get it, I could be totally wrong," he said. "But my philosophy is different. I focus on the positive."

On Saturday, those rose-colored glasses were knocked into the mud with everything else, and it only figured.

A season that began with hopes of playing a game for all the marbles ended with the Trojans playing a game for all the nuts.

From Pasadena to the Emerald City, from beginning to end, the Trojans traveled on a cracked brick road.

Their freshman quarterback Matt Barkley, so tough so early, proved to be too young to hang around late, and even his 350 yards passing against a slow Eagles defense Saturday were soiled with two interceptions.

The question now is, will Carroll live up to his mantra and actually allow somebody to compete with Barkley for a starting job next spring?

The defense, always so highly regarded here, wound up missing its four NFL-bound linebackers and struggled until the end, allowing the Eagles to hang in the game until early in the fourth quarter.

The question now is, will Carroll remove the distractions that seemed to plague him this season and return to coaching a defense that was once his trademark here?

The season began with a freak and nearly tragic incident -- Stafon Johnson's throat was crushed by weights -- that will surely result in a lawsuit.

The season ended in a reckless, foolish incident that could result in NCAA sanctions.

Hey, the Trojans' problems aren't anything that a strong athletic director couldn't fix, if only they could find one.

In the meantime, the best metaphor for this nine-win, four-loss, plenty-embarrassing autumn of USC football could be found in a tunnel here Saturday night as McKnight was approached by a shouting fan while walking toward the field.

"Hey, Stafon, Stafon, can I have your autograph?"

In the end, we barely recognized any of them..

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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