LOS ANGELES -- Lawrence Jackson is fired up to play in the Rose Bowl presented by Citi. Seriously. Oh sure, the USC senior defensive end has heard all about how his school's fans think USC's biggest opponent won't be Illinois, but rather boredom. Jackson, though, isn't buying it. So what if this is the Trojans' third consecutive Rose Bowl appearance -- and second straight without a national title hanging in the balance?
"To me this trip means more than any other year, because nobody thought we'd make it here a few weeks ago," Jackson said.
Just a little spinning there perhaps?
Truth is, it'd be hard to believe that this year's game tops the 2006 Rose Bowl date with Texas, but Jackson and other USC seniors are adamant this latest trip to Pasadena is still a big deal to them.
"The goal of this team is always to get to the Rose Bowl," says Sedrick Ellis, USC's All-American nose guard.
Of course, that's easy to say now. Four months ago, the rest of the country had much loftier expectations for the Trojans. They were the consensus preseason No. 1 team. They had a Heisman favorite in senior quarterback John David Booty and an experienced defense that some in the media were hailing as the best college defense ever. But after coasting through their first three games, the Trojans barely beat Washington, 27-24. Then, with lowly Stanford visiting the Coliseum, the unfathomable happened. The Cardinal, a 41-point underdog, hung around long enough to capitalize on four Booty interceptions and converted on a pair of fourth downs in the final minute to pull off the most shocking upset in college football history. Trojans players were actually booed at home. The loss ended USC's 35-game home winning streak and exposed some sizable gaps in the Trojans' armor.
Booty struggled with an injured finger. Backup Mark Sanchez tried to add some fiery leadership to an offense that rotated in a half-dozen tailbacks and couldn't find a playmaking receiver to complement tight end Fred Davis. But the Trojans couldn't get out of their tailspin. For the first time in the Pete Carroll era, USC had not seamlessly replaced a departed star with another, as the progression from Mike Williams/Keary Colbert to Dwayne Jarrett/Steve Smith couldn't produce another breakout star. Worse still, the Trojans were hobbled by injuries up front and were forced to mix and match unproven linemen. The defense was still tough, but it wasn't impenetrable, not only surrendering key plays to Stanford but also getting victimized by Oregon's Dennis Dixon and the Ducks' potent spread attack as UO converted on 9 of 16 third-down attempts and beat the Trojans 24-17. That defeat in late October almost sent USC out of the top 20. The Trojans fell to No. 19 in the poll.
Fans on USC message boards were in a panic. Many blamed USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, saying his scheme was too dull and predictable. Others blamed Booty. Some put the onus on Carroll, saying he couldn't keep former offensive coordinator Norm Chow happy and the decline of the USC attack has been inevitable ever since the offensive whiz left for the NFL. One rival coach says USC's biggest problem isn't Sarkisian or Booty or their offensive scheme, but rather that they don't have as much pure talent at the skill positions as they did when Matt Leinart had Reggie Bush, LenDale White, Jarrett and Smith to work with.
"Back then, they had guys who could make plays that were designed and blocked to get 9 yards, go for 70 yards," the coach says. "They scared you, and they knew it, so you had this team with an ultra-aggressive mentality. Bush literally made everyone else play on their heels and that opened up everything else for those other guys. Now when you watch them on film, who scares you? [Freshman RB Joe] McKnight's the closest thing to that, and he's not ready, so they don't have that X factor. And now, no one is scared of them. Instead, they are just like every other good team where they have to be very sound, avoid penalties and turnovers and keep the chains moving, and sometimes that's not good enough."
Even defensively, where the Trojans lead the Pac-10 and are among the national leaders, they are down in one key category that is very un-Carroll-like: turnovers forced. They are tied for second-to-last in the Pac-10 with just 24. Last season, they had just 22, after forcing 38 in 2005, 38 in '04 and 42 in 2003.
Establishing the mind-set of creating turnovers is of such importance to Carroll, his Wednesday practices for years are known as "Turnover Wednesdays." But the coach concedes he's at a loss for the drop-off.
"I just don't know why it is," he said. "If I knew, I'd have fixed it. More than anything, I think it's the nature of the guys. The guys we've had here over the years have been so good at hawking the football and I don't think we've been able to find that nature about us."
Ellis says it's pointless for the team to wonder where it would be if it hadn't stumbled. The Trojans know they had their chances, and it wasn't meant to be.
"I think we lost to a very good Oregon team when they had Dennis Dixon and he's really hard to contain," Ellis said, "and I do think we overlooked Stanford, looking ahead. That obviously hurt us because everybody's gonna bring their A game when they play the Trojans."
Carroll is pleased with how his team has responded. He's not the type to say such a thing, but in the case of some powerhouse programs, there is often a "national title or bust" mentality that sets in among the players. Miami had it. After the Canes would lose a game and sense their national title hopes were dashed, they'd check out. An 11-1 season would sink to 9-3 or worse. This USC team has not done that, and maybe that is the best evidence that the Trojans aren't set for the same tumble the Canes of a few years ago took.
Carroll admits he is disappointed that his team isn't "more" than 10-2, but his team grasps what happened.
"We were banged up and we had chances," he says. "But this isn't about what happened before. It's about what you're gonna do next. The team understood that and responded beautifully."
In fact, the Trojans set a couple of records in doing so, winning a sixth consecutive Pac-10 title and making it to a sixth straight BCS bowl.
"I really think the outside world and the fans got spoiled," Jackson said. "People have these perceptions of what USC is. These other teams are good. You can't expect to blow everybody else out. We're 10-2. We're the Pac-10 champions. Why does it have to be a 'down' year?"
Bruce Feldman is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine. His new book, "Meat Market: Inside the Smash-Mouth World of College Football Recruiting," is on sale now.