Looking a gift horse in the mouth
USC junior quarterback Carson Palmer is sacked by a Notre Dame defender during the Trojans' loss last weekend in South Bend. USC comes into Tucson this weekend looking to win its second Pac-10 game of the season.
Thursday October 25, 2001
When Pete Carroll took the job as head football coach at USC, he should have read up on his history.
He would likely have found that the Trojans of Southern California share many similarities to the Trojan Horse of ancient lore - lots of promise, then a disastrous result.
When the former New England Patriots head coach took the top post for the USC football team, the Trojans were coming off a season where they went from preseason top-25 to the most disappointing team in the Pacific 10 Conference, if not the country.
Led by a strong-armed quarterback, a running back with sprinter's speed, and a wide receiver thought to be among the best in the country, pundits were shocked to see USC stumble to a 5-7 finish, with only two of those wins coming in conference play.
Paul Hackett, Carroll's predecessor, was run out of town amid Web sites proclaiming his incompetence. When the school couldn't lure Oregon State's Dennis Erickson, Oregon's Mike Belotti, or the San Diego Chargers' Mike Riley, they fell back on Carroll, who turned down the job three years earlier.
This year, the preseason expectations were as high as usual. USC was expected to be a contender in the Pac-10, and its trio of juniors - quarterback Carson Palmer, running back Sultan MacCullough and wide receiver Kareem Kelly - was expected to finally break through and become a force. Furthermore, Carroll brought with him Norm Chow, considered to be one of the best offensive minds in the game, as his offensive coordinator.
After a 21-10 victory over San Jose State in the first game of the season, however, USC (2-5, 1-3 Pac-10) hit the wall and began to show signs of the inconsistency that had haunted them the year before.
USC would lose five out of their next six games by a combined 25 points, most of the losses coming after collapses late in the game.
"(The games have) been close. They've been real close," Carroll said. "They've come down to fourth quarter opportunities for the most part. We had an opportunity, if we could find a way to score or find a way to stop them. It's been real frustrating for us, we've been playing solid football in games where we were right in there, but we haven't been able to find what we need at the end of the game."
"Every game we play comes down to the wire," Palmer said. "We just haven't been able to pull one out."
Part of the problem for the offense may have been the absence of MacCullough, who suffered a strained abdominal muscle early in the Trojans' game against ASU two weeks ago, and missed the game against Notre Dame last weekend. Carroll said earlier in the week that he was optimistic that MacCullough would be back for Saturday's game against UA, but said yesterday in the Los Angeles Times that the back would not be healthy enough to play.
Carroll said the lack of a consistent running attack has put pressure on Palmer, who has thrown eight interceptions this season in addition to his nine touchdowns.
"I think we've put (Palmer) too many times (in situations) where he has to carry the load all by himself, and it's been difficult for him," Carrol said. "He's made a lot of great plays this year and he's been under a lot of pressure to make those plays. I think if we can balance our offense, he's a real weapon."
UA head coach John Mackovic said, struggles aside, that Palmer presents a real problem for the Wildcats.
"Carson Palmer is someone who has shown that he will line up and throw the ball," Mackovic said. "So, we have to be ready for that kind of onslaught if they decide to come out and throw 50 times."
However, it appears the Trojans' passing game may be hindered by the loss of Kelly, who will miss Saturday's game due to suspension after missing a team practice earlier this week.
USC's secondary is also thought to be a team strength. Seven different players have intercepted a pass this season and the unit boasts the conference's co-leader in tackles with junior safety Troy Polamalu, who is tied with UA's Lance Briggs with 69 on the season, good for a 9.9 per game clip.
"I think (the secondary) is a strong point on our team," Carroll said. "Corner play is really consistent. I think Troy is one of the best players in the Pac-10, I think he's just an excellent player at strong safety."
Mackovic credits the secondary's play this season to one main factor - speed.
"They have an unusually talented group of players playing a sophisticated style of defense," Mackovic said. "They have great athletes. It's not easy to throw the ball against them, and that's why they're leading the conference in pass defense. They play to their strengths, they know things, they read routes, and they understand what people are trying to do."
UA may not know what to expect when the Trojans take the field Saturday, but one thing's for sure - it'll be a war.