LOS ANGELES -- Every time the USC Trojans aim high this year, they hit the wrong target.
Starting last summer, several players said their goal was to win all 13 games. It took five weeks, and the Washington Huskies puncturing their balloon, to wake them up from that daydream.
Then there was the revenge game at Stanford, remember, a chance to punish Jim Harbaugh and his guys for embarrassing them at the Coliseum the season before? That didn't work out either, with Stanford's kicker sending the ball, and their hopes, careening end over end through the uprights.
Then came the "bowl game" talk, about shocking the nation by beating the top team. Oregon took care of all that by finishing the game at the Coliseum on a 24-0 run.
So, now, with back-to-back tough road games straight ahead, this team (6-3, 3-3 Pac-10) has found a target vague enough to be within reach.
"Win. We just want to win," Shareece Wright said.
Yeah, but can they win out? To save a semblance of this team's mystique, winning the final four games is a must. A 10-3 season would be an improvement over the final chapter of the Pete Carroll glory years and probably place the Trojans in the top 10 or 15 of the Associated Press poll, not far off from their traditional perch.
It would let the rest of the conference, and those who stay up late on the East Coast, know that the Trojans are still worthy of tracking.
Speaking at ESPN 710's Lunch with a Legend event this week, athletic director Pat Haden said a 10-3 record would represent a "phenomenal season" for the Trojans.
If the Trojans can't win their final four games, they still can offer their fan base hope for 2011 -- and for 2012, when they're finally eligible for the postseason again. To salvage a measure of the old pride, this team needs to go 3-1 over the final four games, equaling its 2009 record. To avoid the perception of collapse, it needs to win at least two more games. Anything worse than that points to a dismal short-term future.
None of the remaining games, with the possible exception of Notre Dame, looks like a tap-in. The next two, at Arizona (Saturday, 5 p.m. on ABC) and at Oregon State, offer legitimate tests. They're against solid teams that have given USC problems in the past. Arizona has a raucous student section, the ZonaZoo. The state of Oregon has been the Trojans' Little Bighorn for years.
For the third time this season, USC goes into a game as an underdog. It's still getting used to the role, because it has yet to pull off an upset. In fact, it's believed the Trojans haven't won as an underdog since the final game of Carroll's first season, 2001, when they beat UCLA 27-0. So, while it might seem like this team lacks motivation, it's grasping for some.
"This whole season has been like our bowl game, knowing we have nothing else to look forward to," Wright said. "It's going to be different for a lot of us. A lot of these kids have had a bowl game to look forward to since they've been here. It's going to be different having the whole month of December off."
Unlike Oregon, which runs a scheme no one has figured out, or Stanford, which might have the best passer in the nation, Andrew Luck, Arizona and Oregon State don't present baffling riddles or send out ridiculous talent. If USC does what it does and does it well, it could well be 8-3 and riding a wave of momentum going into the final two rivalry games.
The Trojans like to think they figured out how to win the tight ones with that wild 34-33 win over Arizona State last week. Now, it's about staying within themselves. Quarterback Matt Barkley has put it on himself to avoid game-changing mistakes in this final stretch. If he does, he'll set the Trojans up for a bounce-back season in 2011 and set himself up as a Heisman candidate. His eight interceptions have come in in four of the team's nine games..
"For our team, our goal is to win them all. For me personally, it's just to finish this year strong with no turnovers," Barkley said. "These last two games were not really good in that category. I feel like for me to finish strong the key component is to not force the ball."
Stanford may have exposed Arizona's underbelly in a 42-17 win last week. The Cardinal sustained long, clock-chewing drives and protected Luck from Arizona's up-tempo pass rush. Luck took advantage by picking apart a suspect Arizona pass defense. The formula isn't to dazzle, it's to do things right.
"They were exposed because Stanford just executed," Barkley said.
The rest of this season is about growth. If they don't get better this week, they can always set new goals next week.
Mark Saxon covers USC football for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter. Follow him on Twitter.