USC's victory over Penn State vaults them to next level, but they must avoid stumbles of past.
Southern California's 29-5 victory over Penn State in the Kickoff Classic in East Rutherford, New Jersey was impressive, and on its face shows that the Trojans play great defense, have an improved ground game, are off to a promising start, and allows coach Paul Hackett to breathe a sigh of relief.
However, it was much more momentous than that. The win may be the most important victory this program has enjoyed since a September, 1988 victory over Oklahoma at the Coliseum.
Ted Tollner had coached at USC from 1983-86, winning a Rose Bowl in 1985, but he did not beat UCLA or Notre Dame. Alumni perceived his performance as under-achieving at a time when Troy was still regularly considered a contender for the National Championship.
Larry Smith was brought in, and in 1987 he led USC to a win over UCLA, but the season ended with a disappointing loss to Michigan State in the Rose Bowl. In 1988, he had some of his recruits in place, and senior quarterback Rodney Peete was a Heisman Trophy candidate. Linebacker junior Seau and safety Mark Carrier anchored a defense that reminded people of the Ronnie Lott years. A fair running attack complemented Peete's aerial skills.
After handling Boston College and getting by Stanford, USC hosted the Sooners in a game that promised to answer some questions about how good the team really was. OU was still a major power (just like Penn State still is), having won the National Championship under Barry Switzer in 1985. The Trojans controlled both lines of scrimmage in an impressive 23-7 win before 86,124 fans. This game spurred them almost all the way back. They came close to running the field, beating Troy Aikman and UCLA at the Rose Bowl. In the Notre Dame game, however, Peete suffered an injury and USC swallowed a galling defeat that reversed many of the gains of the Oklahoma win. In some ways the program has never truly recovered.
The Irish came to Los Angeles ranked number one, SC was number two, and in a "national championship" game played before 93,829, Notre Dame broke open a close halftime contest to win, 27-10. That game seemed to break SC's back. In a lackluster Rose Bowl performance, USC let Michigan beat them, 22-14. Over the next 10 years, they would get close, but always fall a day late and a dollar short.
In 1989, with Todd Marinovich at quarterback, the season started on the wrong foot with a loss to Illinois. One of the most talented teams SC has ever fielded did go 9-2-1 with a Rose Bowl win over Michigan, but they blew a 10-point lead, losing to Notre Dame at South Bend, and managed to tie a poor UCLA team.
In 1990, Marinovich engineered an impressive Kickoff Classic win over Syracuse, 34-16, but his personal problems affected the team's up-and-down year. They beat UCLA in a thriller, 45-42, but the next week had nothing left for Notre Dame in an 18-7 loss. By the second half of their pathetic 17-16 defeat at the hands of Michigan State in the John Hancock Bowl, it was obvious that Marinovich was a cancer that had spread to the whole team.
The gains of that September 24, 1988 victory over Oklahoma had been lost, first when the injured Peete was ineffective vs. Notre Dame, and finally when Marinovich's career, which had started with such promise for him and the program, ended in ignominy and scandal.
The wilderness years ensued. Larry Smith was fired. Rob Johnson starred at quarterback, but the running attack and defense could not support him. Under John Robinson in 1995, USC started 6-0, and on October 21 traveled to South Bend to play Notre Dame in their most important game since the aforementioned Oklahoma contest. If they had beaten the Irish that day, Troy would have had a chance to win the National Championship. Instead, they got smoked, 38-10, in a game that left them limp for the rest of the regular season. After tying Washington and losing to an undermanned UCLA team, the Trojans snuck in to the Rose Bowl, beating Northwestern in a nice win that barely made up for a "what might have been" season.<p>
Since then, this program has had to look for bright spots wherever they could find them. In 1996 the Notre Dame winless streak mercifully ended at 13. Robinson's teams squeaked to three less-than-impressive victories over underwhelming Notre Dame squads, but SC would not end a brutal eight-game losing skein at the hands of UCLA until 1999. Hackett and quarterback Carson Palmer were brought in in1998, but their teams were unprepared in a Sun Bowl loss to Texas Christian, and in mistake-filled penalty-fests, including three blown 21-point leads (including the Notre Dame loss) in '99.
Which brings us to the events of Sunday, August 27, 2000 at Giants Stadium.
Penn State is a team with real problems, and the controversy surrounding quarterback Rashard Casey did not help. However, in the 35 years that Joe Paterno has coached the Nittany Lions, they are always good. This team may not go 10-2, but they will get the seven wins that JoePa needs to tie Bear Bryant's all-time record.
The most impressive aspect of SC's win was tailback Sultan McCullough, a world-class speedster with moves, and the willingness to mix it up for the tough yards. Based on his 128-yard performance, the 6-foot, 185-pound sophomore looks to be the best SC player at this position since Marcus Allen. If he can return the team to the hardcore running attack that made them "Tailback U.", that will make Palmer much more effective.
Palmer was tentative, telegraphing a first quarter interception, failing to sense a couple of blindside tackles, and never establishing rhythm with wide receiver Kareem Kelly. However, his talent is undeniable, and there is ample confidence that with practice and more game experience, he will be one of the most exciting quarterbacks in the nation.
Speed and athleticism, combined with punishing size and strength, marked the Trojans' performance on both sides of the line of scrimmage, especially from linebacker Zeke Moreno, who may be the best at his position in college football. Speed also made up for inexperience in the defensive backfield, where Darrell Riddeaux and Kris Richard were there to break up Casey's passes. The loss to injury of Penn State receiver Eddie Drummond hurt Penn State in a big way.
SC's special teams came up huge, blocking a punt for a touchdown, while kicker David Newbury knocked in three field goals, including impressive 47- and 44-yarders. Sultan Abdul-Malik and Lonnie Ford dominated the defensive line for SC, whose defense inflicted punishing "lay 'em out" tackles on the outmanned Lions.
Now SC must take the next step. They have two weeks to prepare for Colorado at home, and play a favorable schedule that does not include Washington, their toughest competition in the Pacific-10 Conference. They must play UCLA at the Rose Bowl, but if the Bruins beat SC this year it will be a big upset. Notre Dame comes to town, and the Irish are way down with coach Bob Davie on the hot seat.
For Hackett, the challenge will be to keep his talented squad from stumbling, all the while meeting the high expectations of the LA media, which will be writing articles like this as long as he keeps winning. The UCLA or Notre Dame games look to be the next important games in the context of how this team fares in the historical context of things.
This writer has already predicted that Palmer will challenge for a Heisman, and I still hold to that assessment. However, if McCullough keeps putting up great rushing performances like he did Sunday, Heisman hype may not be directed only at Palmer. As far as honors are concerned, Moreno looks to be as good as any of the contenders for the Butkus Award, and Ford's performance vs. Penn State was of Outland Trophy calibre. These are high expectations, but the talent is there.
When the time comes to play the Bruins and Irish, if SC is undefeated they must maintain the discipline and preparedness of the Penn State game in order to avoid getting upset by their emotional rivals. If they can get into a National Championship bowl game, then anything can happen and it is too far away for even me to get into at this point, but the bottom line is this: USC is baaa-ck.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism