FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Clearly, USC has lost it.
Last year, the Trojans scored 28 points in their first eight offensive plays against Arkansas. This year, USC was still scoreless against the Razorbacks after eight plays.
It kicked a field goal on its ninth.
After that, USC made its fans wait an interminable 18 more plays before scoring its first touchdown of 2006. It took another eight plays to score a third time, on another field goal. You can imagine the disbelief rippling through Troy at that point.
Last year the Trojans scored 70 points on 67 offensive plays against Arkansas. This year, they needed 80 offensive plays to score their measly 50 points.
Like they're Duke or something.
What's happened to these guys? It's almost as if you took two Heisman Trophy winners and a guy who scored 26 touchdowns out of the backfield or something.
But before relegating USC to the has-been heap, let's mention this fact:
Last year's Trojans averaged 49 points per game. This year's Trojans just hung 49 plus one -- the most points scored on Arkansas in Fayetteville since something called Henry Kendall College recorded 61 here in -- not a misprint -- 1919. That's five years before Frank Broyles was born, and it's believed that Frank Broyles' signature is on the Declaration of Independence.
(TCU scored 56 on the Razorbacks in 1990 and Miami rang up 51 in 1987, but those games were in Little Rock.)
And this little muscle flexing came against a team -- hell, an entire state -- that had been laying in wait for them since that 70-17 annihilation last September.
Guess I won't give up on 'em just yet.
The fact is, after makin' bacon out of the Hogs for the second successive season, USC has stamped itself as completely worthy of being in the national title discussion once again. (Unlike another Pac-10 team that traveled to Dixie, California.) Trojans '06 might not match up star-for-star and stat-for-stat with Trojans '05, but they match up mighty well with every current title contender in the country after Week 1.
No other top 10 team looked this good in a setting this hostile. Period.
With a Razorback Stadium-record crowd of 76,564 calling the Hogs, Pete Carroll never called off the dogs. Not until a statement had been made that will be heard from Columbus to Austin to Morgantown to South Bend to Auburn to Baton Rouge: even with a new quarterback and a cast of babies running the ball, USC hasn't gone anywhere.
"It's really a satisfying win for us," an amped Carroll said afterward. "We came back and played the way the Trojans play football."
Here's how this latest incarnation of the Trojans played football Saturday night:
• With speed, ferocity and opportunism on defense. This is the best unit on the USC team, featuring a set of linebackers that go sideline-to-sideline swiftly and hunt heads relentlessly.
Arkansas came out with a game plan that was heavy on misdirection running plays and underneath passes to its backs. It proved useless trying to throw the ball in front of USC's 'backers and outrun them. The Hogs had one offensive first down in the first quarter-and-a-half and trailed 13-0 before loosening up their approach.
The Trojans' defense set the tone for the game by gouging the ball loose from Fumbly Felix Jones on the Hogs' third, eighth and 12th plays from scrimmage. The Trojans recovered two of the three loose balls, converting them into 10 points.
For the game USC forced five turnovers and had none of its own, consistent with a program that is a staggering plus-99 in the turnover department in 65 games under Carroll.
"That," said Carroll, "is our philosophy in action."
• With aplomb and accuracy from its quarterback. John David Booty's first start looked remarkably similar to Matt Leinart's first start, back in 2003. On the road against an SEC team, Leinart was mistake-free and very productive in a big win against Auburn that sparked his brilliant three-year starting run. Booty was the same here, completing 24 of 35 passes for 261 yards and three touchdowns.
"He was great," center Ryan Kalil said. "He handled the huddle like he'd been playing there for three years. We're so proud of him."
Said co-offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian: "He was extremely calm. That's very encouraging. The thing that I loved about him, in the second half he started getting a little fire in his eyes. That's nice to see."
Booty received a text message from Leinart on Friday and talked to him that night and again Saturday. He said Leinart's message was fairly simple: "You're going to do great. Just deal the ball."
Booty started off dealing too quickly, in his own estimation.
"I was trying to do everything a little too fast," he said.
But after one quarter, the adrenaline had dissipated and Booty got down to carving up the porkers. With Carroll's urging, Sarkisian and Lane Kiffin opened up the offense more and their QB responded.
"I was encouraging our guys: 'Let's go!' " Carroll said. "We were playing a little bit safe at first."
The game plan need not stay safe for long. Booty has proved he can handle more, especially with the guys he's throwing to.
• With matchup nightmares at the receiver spots. In a remarkable deviation from standard play-calling, USC threw on 12 of its first 14 plays in the red zone. Part of that was dictated by Arkansas' tendency to blitz when backed up against its own goal line, part by the absence of primo power back LenDale White -- and part by the size and athleticism of the Trojan receivers.
Wideouts Dwayne Jarrett and Patrick Turner are both 6-foot-5. So is tight end Fred Davis. They combined to catch 12 passes, two of them for touchdowns, as they used their size and reach to outmaneuver Arkansas defenders for Booty's passes.
"We've got some nice weapons," Sarkisian said. "We've got some guys who can make plays for you down in there tight."
• With a cast of thousands at running back. Six previously inexperienced USC RBs got carries against Arkansas, and nobody got more than 12. These Trojans don't have a runner with Bush's burst or White's goal-line power, but they'll bring more fresh legs to a game than any other top 10 team.
And Carroll loves it this way. Nothing guarantees more intense practices than an all-out fight for the right to carry the football.
"I'm not going to try to create some formula [for getting guys a set number of carries]," he said. "The competition is on again. Every one of these guys is competing for playing time again -- including some guys who didn't get to play."
The competition for playing time may be over at quarterback for Arkansas, after a fourth quarter that began as an anticlimax and ended as a melodrama for Hogs fans.
When starter Robert Johnson came out with the Arkansas offense for its first possession of the fourth, he was roundly (and cruelly) booed. The debacle was hardly Johnson's fault, but it was clear that the populace was wildly eager to see the Hogs' golden child, mega-recruit Mitch Mustain.
Mustain finally entered the game with 9:40 left, to raucous approval from what was left of the record crowd. He promptly took the Hogs 80 yards in five plays, capping the drive himself with a touchdown run. Judging from the crowd reaction, you'd have thought they just tied the game.
Johnson had just been Wally Pipp-ed, and knew it. As Mustain and the offense came off the field, the junior sat motionless on the bench. He eventually moved over a seat for Mustain when he got back to the sideline but otherwise did not acknowledge or congratulate the true freshman at all. Neither did the other backup QB who was in the August mix, Casey Dick.
Mustain came back to Earth his next time out, throwing an interception. But his 4-for-6 for 47 yards will play much better than Johnson's 12-for-25 for 110 yards, and Arkansas coach Houston Nutt will have a statewide mutiny on his hands if Mustain isn't the starter this week against Utah State.
But the head coach will have to cut through some obvious team tension to make sure the Hogs coalesce around Mustain. Nothing less than his job security will depend on it.
"We've got to grow up in a hurry," Nutt said. "We've got 11 more games. It's a long season ahead of us. This game is over and we can't do anything about it."
Neither can USC, which clearly has some work to do of its own. Maybe by Sept. 16 it will remember how to score 28 points in eight plays, after this embarrassing eight-play shutout in Fayetteville. But there's just a wee bit of hope that these Trojans might end up being pretty good, too.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.