LOS ANGELES -- The word causes the usually genial Trojans to pause. The mention of it carries so much weight that its two syllables might as well be five fingers balled up into a fist. Gut punches aren't easily forgotten.
|Rey Maualuga and USC feed off last season's loss to Stanford. (AP)|
It was obvious after Saturday's 35-3 victory over Ohio State that the Trojans were still figuring out what happened last Oct. 6 and convincing themselves that it would never happen again.
"After watching it 100 times, I couldn't tell you what happened," said senior defensive tackle Fili Moala. "I think it was just complacency."
I've been covering USC extensively during the Pete Carroll era and I've never heard anything close to the c-word uttered by a Trojan. Part of Carroll's success is his uncanny ability to keep his team on task. His practices are significantly shorter -- and thus more enjoyable for his players -- than at other schools.
His players seem to bask in the limelight, without hogging it. Must have something to do with growing up in the L.A. media market. Half of them look like they stepped off the sand after an afternoon of surfing at Manhattan Beach. The few that are from outside California value the experience like an extended vacation.
The program has had its share of off-field problems but because Carroll is so open with everyone, not just media, the transgressions don't linger in the minds of critics.
You want to like them. In the week leading up to the Ohio State, I heard Carroll use the word "dude", "cool" and "awesome" a couple dozen times combined. His favorite time of day is playing catch in practice.
This isn't a 56-year-old coach, it's a 12-year-old who snuck into Heritage Hall.
Despite all that, a skeptic can't help but ask if there is another Stanford out there. Has complacency snuck ever so subversively into the program? I'm not necessarily talking about the Stanford game (Nov. 15 at Palo Alto), but a loss to an underdog that doesn't make sense. Two years ago, it happened at Oregon State and at UCLA. Last year, it was the Cardinal. The other 2007 loss at Oregon was hardly an upset. Starting quarterback John David Booty was injured and with the inexperienced Mark Sanchez, the Trojans fought valiantly and lost by a touchdown.
|Dodd's Power Poll|
|11. Ohio State|
|14. Penn State|
|15. South Florida|
|16. East Carolina|
|18. Texas Tech|
|20. Wake Forest|
|21. Michigan State|
|22. West Virginia|
|23. Arizona State|
|Out: Illinois, Fresno St.|
"We remember that (Stanford) game every week, every day," said Sanchez, who threw four touchdowns on Saturday. "Those kinds of games are out there. For us to avoid them is going to take intense focus and tremendous effort knowing we're never going to ... throw our hat out there, our helmet out there."
There was a giant reminder Saturday night of how a season can deteriorate in an instant. Arizona State, thought by many to be USC's chief challenger in the Pac-10, lost at home to UNLV. The Pac-10 itself seemed to be falling by the wayside with other embarrassing losses by Cal, UCLA, Arizona and, yes, Stanford.
The temptation is to fast forward the season and place USC in the BCS title game against: Pick one a.) the SEC champion; or b.) the Big 12 champion (Oklahoma or Missouri). USC will likely be favored in its remaining 10 games. There's not a team left on its schedule that approximates Ohio State, which just got its head handed to it before the biggest Coliseum crowd in 15 years.
"We come out here and play games," Moala said Saturday night. "I see better (players) in practice."
You'd think, then, that after six consecutive BCS bowls and 11-win seasons, there would be more faith in the Trojans.
"I think it's dangerous to think like that," Moala said. "A lot can happen, people can get complacent. People can get big headed and think something of themselves that they aren't."
In a locker room of go-to interviews, Moala might be the conscience of the Trojans. His answers are thoughtful. He thinks about the question and doesn't spout clichés. You can tell without asking that teammates look up to him.
It's obvious from talking to him that there was an element of leadership that was missing last season. Maybe the Trojans were too young, too complacent. This year's team has 12 senior starters counting special teamers. It's hard to say what went "wrong" after an 11-2 Rose Bowl-winning season in 2007. I do know they don't necessarily measure success here by mere Rose Bowls.
What's the big deal? The program has lost once at home since 2001. That loss was to Stanford and the stench doesn't wash away that easily.
"We were thinking less of our opponents and not thinking they were dangerous and they (Cardinal) came in here and beat our butts," Moala said. "Our team grew up in a year. Honestly, I think we're very dangerous."
It's still tempting, then, to christen these Trojans as favorites once again. Sanchez looks like a budding Matt Leinart. If it's possible, tailback/returner Joe McKnight has even more moves and is faster than Reggie Bush. The receivers have finally started to step up after shrinking into the background last season.
USC has a lot of time to contemplate its future. It doesn't play for 11 more days, on a Thursday night at Oregon State. You can tell even now that the two dreaded syllables haven't left the building, or the Trojans' minds.
"Say if we played Stanford next week ... we're going to prepare like it's a national championship, like they're coming to beat us ...," linebacker Rey Maualuga said. "That (loss) is something we feed off of because we don't ever want that to happen again."