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Favored Trojans have been down this road before

PALO ALTO — They came from nowhere and everywhere, a stampede of red and white streaming from all corners, filling the Stanford Stadium grass with a mob of passion and power.

What happened to the USC football team for nearly four hours was symbolized in about four minutes late Saturday, Stanford’s fans mimicking their players by surrounding the Trojans and pushing them out the door into the chilly night.

Yeah, it’s over.

The idea of a perfect Trojans season. The idea of an easy Matt Barkley Heisman. The lovely notion that a college football team can come off two years of probation and dominate the football world as if it never left.

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Oh, it’s ugly.

Just three games into what was supposed to be a dream season, the Trojans were slapped awake and senseless Saturday by Stanford in a 21-14 loss that felt like a 12th-round knockout.

Lying flat today is Barkley, tossed around in a backfield that became a dangerous place without injured center Khaled Holmes, leveled by poor communication with receivers that resulted in consecutive interceptions, the golden boy all bronzed.

Lying next to him is Coach Lane Kiffin, who began the week by causing a silly distraction with the media and ended it overseeing a team that followed his lead by playing undisciplined and, well, distracted.

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Scattered along the edges of the canvas are a battered Trojans defense feeling most of the pain of the 10 scholarships removed by probation, and a kicking game that somehow, amazingly, does not have a field-goal kicker.

The loss does not end USC’s national championship hopes, as it is early enough to allow the Trojans to tap into their immense talent and fight their way back, particularly since they have a game remaining with highly ranked Oregon. The loss also does not mean Barkley could not win the Heisman, as the award is usually won with great games in November.

But, let’s be honest, after Saturday night, both dreams are as disconnected and frivolous as USC’s final comeback drive. Stanford had scored twice in barely a minute late in the third quarter and early in the fourth quarter, eventually setting up the Trojans for a last-gasp drive beginning at their 11-yard line.

Remember Matt Leinart leading the game-winning drive at Notre Dame several years ago in a similar situation? This wasn’t that. During the drive Barkley was sacked twice, his team committed two dumb penalties, and Kiffin looked up from his play card to make the night’s strangest call.

On first down from the Stanford 46-yard line with less a minute left, the Trojans ran Curtis McNeal up the middle. This was an offense that ended the night with 26 net yards rushing, with starter Silas Redd hobbled and with Stanford winning seemingly every battle at the line of scrimmage. Why on earth would Kiffin be running? McNeal was stopped for a loss of three yards, USC was forced to use its last timeout, and the rest of the drive was a blur of sacks and incompletions.

It was a typical drive for the Trojans, who were outgained 417-280 by a team starting a new quarterback not named Andrew Luck. It was filled with typical moments for Barkley, who completed just 20 of 41 passes for 254 yards, no touchdowns and two passes intercepted.

Yes, Barkley was outplayed by his newbie counterpart Josh Nunes, who not only threw for two touchdowns but gained 33 yards on three big runs. And, yes, it is fair to now start wondering what is happening with Barkley and his ability to throw a long pass.

He only threw a couple of long balls last week against Syracuse, and his longest pass Saturday was a wobbly desperation heave that floated out of bounds on USC’s last play. He has two of the speediest weapons at his disposal — Marqise Lee and Robert Woods — yet he is not using them deep.

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While Kiffin has repeatedly said he just wants to play it safe, one must wonder, has Barkley suddenly experienced a sudden loss of arm strength? He has talked about trainers working on his shoulder, is there something in there? Even many of his short passes were missing Saturday, partly because the receivers ran to wrong places — Woods seemed lost much of the time — but also because Barkley missed them. Late Saturday, Barkley lowered his head and struggled to find the words.

“We were prepared they played better they outplayed us,” he said.

Was he surprised to be shutout in the second half?

“No,” he said.

His thoughts on that final drive?

“Disappointing,” he said.

Kiffin was surprised that the Trojans didn’t score after Redd ran for their second touchdown a minute into the second quarter

“I was shocked,” he said. “I thought we’d come out and kind of start rolling.”

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Instead, they were rolled, ending a week that began when Kiffin put the Trojans’ national image in harm’s way when he tried — and failed — to punish a local reporter for reporting news that was unfavorable to the Trojans. Scott Wolf of the Los Angeles Daily News angered Kiffin because he reported that kicker Andre Heidari was scheduled to undergo knee surgery. Kiffin claimed Wolf broke the team’s media policy that prohibits reporters from writing about injuries occurring at practice or resulting from practice, and banned him from attending the next two weeks of practice while denying him a credential to next week’s Cal game at the Coliseum.

However, Wolf did not get the news from practice, and within a day, Kiffin’s bosses withdrew the punishment. But the damage had been done. Kiffin and his program seemed petty and paranoid, a perception that could hurt them later in poll and Heisman voting. Not that it seems to matter now. But it would be nice if, after failing to convert a fourth down deep in Stanford territory in the fourth quarter, the Trojans could actually find a kicker to replace the one who is not hurt.

bill.plaschke@latimes.


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