USC's calm before the storm
The schedule appears to be soft early. But make no mistake, it's tough later
LOS ANGELES -- The best thing USC fans have going for them right now is one warm, comforting thought in a summer of cold humiliations: By the time their team actually plays somebody capable of hurting it, it could know who it is.
Rarely has there been a better time for a soft early schedule. A fluffy September might -- emphasis on might -- buy this team enough time to grow up before the other adults reach the arena.
Right now, the Trojans are not making much of an impression on anybody, certainly not the big crowd that filed into the Coliseum to see what was left of this program.
Certainly not on their head coach. Lane Kiffin called the atmosphere in the locker room after Saturday's 17-14 win over Virginia "probably the most miserable 2-0 locker room I've ever been in."
Later he elaborated on what he said felt more like a loss than a win. "The disappointment is for the Trojan family, the Trojan fans that we put that show out there," Kiffin said.
A roar of approval went up late when Virginia missed a 35-yard field goal attempt. Imagine that kind of reaction at the Coliseum five years ago with a middling ACC team in town. Imagine it two years ago.
As anticlimactic as the ending of this USC season will be, devoid as it is of any bowl-game fun, the moment of truth figures to come sometime in the middle, maybe around the time the Trojans pull into Palo Alto.
The first month or so of the season isn't going to tell anybody anything. The Trojans slogged around for four quarters and repelled a surprisingly stout charge from Virginia on Saturday night. That indecisive effort followed the previous week's vague meanderings a couple of thousand miles west of here.
Oh, and in upcoming weeks, the Trojans face Minnesota, which just lost at home to South Dakota -- yeah, those pesky Coyotes again -- and then Washington State, which survived an attack by the Montana State Bobcats.
The Trojans are sending out mixed signals. Their fans can't tell whether they're flirting with them or giving them the get-lost treatment.
Against Hawaii, these guys looked inept on defense and dynamic on offense. OK, so that's the kind of team this is -- a razzle-dazzle show? Maybe, maybe not. Against Virginia, the Trojans' defense held its ground for the most part while the offense sputtered and stalled for entire quarters. The rushing game was plodding, the passing game hit-or-miss.
"I feel like we came out too tense. We just needed to relax," tailback Marc Tyler said. "They did a good job stopping the run. They had a lot of guys in the box. It was really frustrating."
The only common theme has been a steady drizzle of little yellow hankies raining down on Trojans heads. For the second straight week, the Trojans committed more than 100 yards in penalties, their lack of discipline weighing down all the good things they try to do.
A lot of people wondered what kind of crowd would come out for the home opener, especially with mixed signals coming out of Hawaii in Game 1, aka Midnight Madness. It turns out a boatload of NCAA sanctions couldn't deter USC fans, who had to endure more than nine months without local football. About 81,000 of them turned out, according to the official count, and it passed the eyeball test. The old stadium looked almost as full as it always did back in the glory days of Pete Carroll, especially considering the opponent didn't exactly suggest a newfound rivalry.
The atmosphere was flat for most of the first half, although that certainly wasn't the crowd's fault. For 25 minutes, the Trojans gave it virtually nothing to cheer for, matching silly penalties and ugly drives with a mediocre ACC team that managed to go 3-9 and get its coach fired a year ago.
USC led 14-7 at halftime, but Virginia's decision-making might have been the best thing the Trojans' offense had going for it. A pass-interference penalty handed the Trojans one first down on a third-and-14. The Cavaliers ran into the punter to set up another USC first down. Cavaliers safety Trey Womack hit Matt Barkley out of bounds, sending him sliding under Virginia's bench, after a 20-yard scramble to set up the Trojans' go-ahead score.
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There were hopeful things to build on despite a middling first half. Barkley looked a little sluggish early but dynamic after the first couple of drives. His biggest infraction early was holding the ball too long and eventually hitting the sod after sacks. Linebacker Darnell Carter came from Barkley's blind side and jarred the ball loose on USC's 31-yard line in the first quarter. That could have turned out to be far more costly, but Virginia quarterback Marc Verica threw an interception in USC's end zone.
Barkley also made smart decisions and completed two-thirds of his passes in the first half for two touchdowns. The sophomore has seven touchdowns without an interception to start the season.
As for the worrisome stuff: The Trojans had too many breakdowns in discipline, such as one holding penalty that wiped out a beautiful 47-yard hookup between Barkley and Ronald Johnson. If that wasn't bad enough, Johnson got flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, tacking on another 15 yards.
The first half was unwatchable at times, unless you happen to favor the intricacies of officiating. The teams combined for 126 yards in first-half penalties.
Mark Saxon covers USC football for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.