The result was just as shocking for people watching on television as it was to people in attendance at the L.A. Coliseum. Stanford 24, USC 23. Of all teams, the Pac-10's last place finisher the year before ended the Trojans 35-game winning streak at home in early October. Since that conference-turning evening though, coach Pete Carroll's club has rebounded nicely and now have themselves in contention for a possible Rose Bowl berth. Carroll, for one, is still very confident in what the No. 12 Trojans brings to the table.
Carroll - the former NFL head man who like Cal coach Jeff Tedford has resurged the program he took over – was perfectly honest when asked about the loss to the Cardinal Tuesday afternoon. Carroll offered no excuses, no ploys and said it like it was.
"John David Booty got hurt during that game and it couldn't be more obvious that he was playing with a broken finger and I made a mistake not recognizing the factor," Carroll said. "He threw four picks and turned it over five times in the second half and gave the game away. We've finally been back to pretty good health. It's taken us a long time to get there. But we understand that we have a chance to finish strong and hopefully still make some noise in the Pac-10 this season."
If there is a time for Carroll and his USC team to make a push, this certainly will be it. In his tenure as head man in South Central, Carroll holds a perfect 19-0 record in the month of November. While his teams in the past have been lackadaisical in games the first two months of the season, the Trojans always – sans a couple of games – put things together in November.
Carroll was hesitant in recognizing that amazing statistical trend on Tuesday however.
That (record) don't mean anything, the veteran coach responded. "To make this a very successful season we are still going to have to finish. We have to win this week."
Dealing With Expectations
USC was the consensus number one team in the country coming into the season. And why not? The Trojans boasted a veteran quarterback in Booty, a talented offensive line led by All-American tackle Sam Baker and a defense that the 'SC side publicized in the preseason as having an All-American type talent at every position.
But, for a bevy reasons, which includes massive injuries, USC has not lived up to its preseason billing.
"Going in we had some issues that we had to deal with," Carroll said. "We needed to see how long it would take the new guys coming in to performance speed. I hoped that we could get it done by the midyear point with the new running backs and receivers and about that time we just got hammered physically. We didn't quite get over the hump there. We let the Stanford game get away. We haven't been as sharp through the middle part of the calendar."
Back to Booty
After sitting out the Trojans' 24-17 loss to Oregon two weeks ago, Carroll deemed Booty's broken finger to be healthy enough to start against Oregon State last week in Los Angeles. Booty responded well, passing for 157 yards and two touchdowns in a 24-3 Trojans win.
Ironically, Cal found itself in a similar position against the Beavers a month ago. For the Bears though, starting quarterback Nate Longshore was deemed not ready to go due to a sprained ankle and gave way to backup Kevin Riley. Although Riley played well, Cal lost to Oregon State sent the Bears into a three-game losing spiral that was broken over the weekend.
Fans were quick to point the finger at Tedford for not managing the quarterback situation a little better over the last month, but Carroll – dealing with Booty's injury – seemed to put things in perspective in regards to USC's situation.
"You guys saw what happened when we went to our backup, it just gets hard," Carroll said.
"(Booty) has started so many games for us so it's great to have him back out there," Carroll added. "We liked that Mark Sanchez had his chance and look forward to him playing more in the future but it's important to have a guy in there with all the background. John was a little rusty and wasn't as sharp as we hoped (against Oregon State). We're hoping that once he gets back into game speed that he'll be ready to go Saturday. We are going to need him."
For years now, USC has been the cream of the crop in the conference. But, when the consensus preseason pick to win the conference losses at home to the team that finished last the year before there's definite evidence that either the teams at the top aren't as good this season or the Pac-10 as a whole is just that more balanced.
Carroll, like Tedford who has stated many times in the past, chose the latter reasoning.
"Across the board it's really competitive. The quarterbacking has been excellent around the league," Carroll said. "From Jake Locker at Washington to what Rudy Carpenter is getting done at Arizona State, quarterbacks are keeping teams on the map. We can play anybody anytime in any conference and I think it's more than evident now that our toughest games are always in the Pac-10. Whether that has anything to do with anything on the national scale I don't know and I don't really care but I do know that our conference is very challenging. There is great coaching and great skills players in this conference and it shows up every week."
Watch Out for the Grif
A big factor in whether the Bears will add another total to the win column Saturday evening will be the play of Cal's offensive line. With Longshore still slightly hampered by his sore right ankle though, the pressure will be on the Bears' pass protection.
The player on the Trojans side of the ball Cal will keep an eye on is defensive end Everson Griffen, who recorded a career-high 3.5 sacks against the Beavers. Griffen was one of the premier defensive line recruits in the country last season and came into the USC program expected to provide a strong pass rush from the edge.
According to Carroll, the true freshman struggled adjusting to the college game early on, but has caught a new lease of late.
"A couple weeks ago he really started heating it up. He was kind of like a bull in a china clock for half the season which is not uncommon for a young guy," Carroll said. "He just wasn't able to use the stuff he was learning in practice in terms of rushing the passer in 1on-1 drills. But he's really getting off the football now. He's a speed rush guy which fits into his style. At times he's been bullrushing people and acting like he's a 300 pounder. This week he really felt well. He was really beating offensive line off the line of scrimmage and doing the things that can make a great speed rusher special. He has a chance to be a terrific player for us."
Chris Nguon is the lead football writer for BearTerritory. He's well known for his recruiting coverage in the star-studded Oakland Athletic League, plus his numerous contributions with The Daily Californian, UC-Berkeley's only independent, student-run newspaper. Nguon is also a correspondent with the Oakland Tribune, and will cover Cal football in the fall of 2007.