The Trojans are back . . . to being what, exactly?
Through the noise of a Coliseum that roared and rocked for the first time in more than two years, you could hear a page being turned.
Through the game’s ugly ending, you could see a new beginning.
The triple-overtime loss to mighty Stanford on Saturday night felt like the first game of the rest of USC’s life, this probation-chained team finally starting to run around like it can smell the freedom, its frustrated fans finally filling the building and bathing it in their passion.
In four games, the Trojans will end their 2011 season and their sentence. The young and outmanned bunch will walk through the clanging gates of NCAA irrelevancy and enter the college football world as a free team again, no more bowl or national championship sanctions, only one question.
What kind of program will this be?
We all remember the raggedy, Pete Carroll-built bunch that staggered into trouble, and now we wonder, what kind of Lane Kiffin-honed group will emerge?
Will this be the kind of program that currently leads the Pac-12 in fewest penalties and fewest penalty yards — an amazing statistic considering the Trojans’ past renegade reputation — with a discipline that extends to a new quiet culture off the field? Will this be the kind of program that turned that discipline into controlled chaos in a decisive victory at Notre Dame, then did it again a week later against fourth-ranked Stanford, holding three second-half leads against a team that had won 15 consecutive games?
Or will this be the kind of program that eventually reverts to its old recklessness, which is also what happened against Stanford, the Trojans blowing two leads in the fourth quarter after committing two bad personal fouls, then adding a clock-management blunder at the end?
I wrote about Saturday’s game through the lens of those mistakes, and I took a lot of heat from USC fans who wanted to overlook the mistakes and focus on the effort. Probation has clearly changed the perception of this team, with some fans now happy if their scholarship-depleted bunch can just come close to greatness, and I get it. Indeed, the exhausted Trojans are to be applauded for battling chin-to-beard with the great Andrew Luck.
But I will never celebrate a loss by a USC football team that could have won. There is no such thing as a “gutty little Trojan.” The program’s history does not allow it, the people inside will never buy it, and the USC tradition thrives because of this.
“There has not been 10 minutes go by when I haven’t thought about something else I could have done, or something I could have done different, to help us win that game,” a frustrated Kiffin said Tuesday.
What kind of program will this be?
If Matt Barkley returns as quarterback — his performance against Stanford impressed NFL scouts enough to make his decision tougher — the team will be talented, quick and strong enough to compete for a national championship.
But will the program be able to ignore the already growing hype and avoid the careless swagger and open arrogance that eventually caused the NCAA to take one of those national championships?
Can Lane Kiffin’s Trojans match Pete Carroll’s Trojans in aptitude and athleticism without the attitude?
I believe Kiffin is trying. I believe his program is still struggling to shed its old ways, and these struggles are occasionally shared by Kiffin himself, but I believe he understands the high standards set by Pat Haden, his athletic director, and he is trying to live up to them.
I also believe he needs to keep trying, because as this team begins its march from probation back to Hollywood, the distractions increase and the cheers grow and winning the right way only gets tougher.
“Generally speaking, I’m extremely proud of our kids on and off the field,” Kiffin said. “They have had a dark cloud above them, but still they have done a phenomenal job in accountability to the university.”
Well, sort of. After delivering dangerous hits that resulted in four personal fouls in the Trojans’ two losses, safety T.J. McDonald was held accountable only by the Pac-12 office, which suspended him for the first half against Colorado on Friday.
Kiffin says he wanted to stand behind his player, and added Tuesday, “Now I’m worried that he is going to be afraid to hit people.”
But at least McDonald did apologize Tuesday, telling reporters, “This is what the rule is. . . . I have to abide by it as well as everybody else. . . . The only thing I can do is figure out a way to [hit] in a way that is not illegal but still be just as physical.”
McDonald wasn’t the only one showing remorse for Saturday night. Kiffin said that the instantly benched Jawanza Starling and Marqise Lee both also apologized for their crucial penalties.
Even Kiffin admitted Tuesday that ending regulation holding two timeouts while the clock expired before a potential game-winning field goal could be attempted was a questionable moment, and maybe next time he won’t hit the referees with a $10,000 rip.
“I’ll always look at myself and how to do something better,” he said. “I think, should I have called a different play? I will always do that.”
What kind of program will this be? At this howling end of two quiet seasons, we’re about to find out.
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