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September 19, 2009

Embarrassing Effort

Even without their best quarterback, their best cornerback, their best safety and their fastest wide receiver, the Trojans still held a huge talent edge over the Huskies.

But with three turnovers, ridiculously low passing yards, poor special teams play and zero third down conversions, USC gift wrapped rookie head coach Steve Sarkisian's first signature win.

Many things went awry for the Trojans on Saturday afternoon, but their problems began long before they even boarded the plane for Seattle.

Freshman sensation quarterback Matt Barkley could barley lift his throwing arm above his head during practice, so he spent the majority of his time watching his teammates prepare for UW from the training table.

Barkley missed Tuesday's and Wednesday's full pads practices, which are normally important milestones for a player coming off an injury. He also missed Thursday's workout and threw a few passes gingerly at the walkthroughs on Friday.

Yet, Pete Carroll never ruled Barkley out or named No. 2 QB Aaron Corp as the starter. Instead, Carroll said he would make a game time decision, and that is exactly what he did.

Corp trotted out there with the offense on USC's first possession, despite never being told he was the starter. Not exactly a confidence-building moment for a young quarterback making his first start in hostile territory.

Carroll's gamble appeared to pay off, at least at first. The Trojan offensive line was controlling the action, opening wide holes for the tailbacks to fly though on their way to a 10-0 first quarter lead.

But once the Huskies settled in and literally dared USC to throw the football, the Trojan offense wilted. Corp threw several horrendous passes into coverage en route to the worst passing performance of the Pete Carroll era.

Idaho quarterbacks combined for 349 yards passing against this Washington secondary. The Trojans, with NFL-level talent all over the place, mustered just 110 yards one week later.

As the game wore on, it was obvious that the USC coaching staff had zero confidence in Corp and his abilities to throw the football. They kept the play calling so generic that it ended up looking like a mediocre high school junior varsity offense.

For the first time since the Paul Hackett years, USC played the game scared, and that is not a winning formula in college football.

With this defense, USC could have run the table this season scoring just 20 points a game. That is updating the scoreboard just once per quarter, two touchdowns and two field goals. One score for ever five-star tailback on the roster.

Earlier in Carroll's tenure, USC had scored at least 20 points in a record 63-straight games. Now the Trojans failed to reach the 20-point mark two weeks in a row.

Calling an uninspiring, conservative game is one thing, but what was the offense working on since early August if any pass play beyond 10 yards is deemed too risky three games into the season?

The coaches didn't even play to Corp's strengths as quarterback. Barkley was running rollouts and play-action almost exclusively in his starts, while the more mobile Corp was relegated to throwing from the pocket.

If the coaches truly lost confidence in Corp, wouldn't that have been the perfect time to give Mitch Mustain a shot? Not only is Mustain the healthiest of the three, but he was 8-0 as a starter in the SEC with an all-star backfield similar to what USC has now.

Mustain has already proven he can hand the ball off and hit some play-action passes against better competition than the Trojans faced on Saturday. Why not give him a shot?

But according to what the coaches said after practice, a crippled Barkley was closer to seeing the field than Mustain was.

Coach Sarkisian, Jake Locker and the rest of the Huskies deserve a ton of credit for playing hard, mistake-free football. But this was not a winnable game for them without significant help from the Trojans.

Some people felt that this trip to Seattle was a potential trap game for the Trojans, but I disagree. Carroll didn't overlook the Huskies, he just overestimated what a one-dimensional offense could achieve against an inspired defense on the road.


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