Trojans rise above distractions

LOS ANGELES -- The text popped up on Su'a Cravens phone as he prepared to leave for the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to play Fresno State on Saturday.

It was from Josh Shaw, one of Cravens’ best friends on the team and the player he thought he would be lining up beside in the defensive backfield this season.

“He just told me to be a leader,” said Cravens, a sophomore starting safety at USC. “Just be a leader and take over the secondary.”

Three days after Shaw, a USC senior cornerback, admitted to lying about how he suffered two high ankle sprains the past weekend and was suspended indefinitely, USC took the field for their season opener and a break from off-the-field distractions in one of the wildest weeks the program has ever experienced.

It began Monday when the team revealed that Shaw, one of the team's captains, had injured himself while jumping from the second story of an apartment complex to save his 7-year-old nephew, who was struggling in the pool. Shaw said his nephew did not know how to swim.

On Wednesday, Shaw hired a criminal defense attorney and admitted to team officials the story was a complete fabrication. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Police Department is eyeing Shaw for a potential role in a domestic dispute.

“I wasn’t expecting it,” Cravens said. “I’m pretty sure nobody on the team was expecting it. We all thought he was a hero at one point. It’s unfortunate what happened, but we have to keep going.”

The Trojans did more that keep going. They took a week’s worth of frustration and anger out on Fresno State during a 52-13 blowout, which could have been worse if the Trojans hadn’t taken out their starters before the start of the fourth quarter.

USC set a Pac-12 record by running 105 offensive plays in the no-huddle offense Steve Sarkisian unveiled during his head-coaching debut with the Trojans. USC also totaled 704 yards and 37 first downs, the most the Trojans have had since 2005, when USC was riding a 34-game winning streak and Sarkisian was the assistant head coach.

It felt like old times at USC. The Trojans were dominant from opening kickoff and scored 52 points before the end of the third quarter. USC hadn’t scored that many in a game at the Coliseum since Pete Carroll was the coach.

As much as USC would like to turn back the clock to that time, it was the struggle of the past season -- when USC went through three head coaches -- and dealing with the sanctions and bowl bans the previous three campaigns that planted the seeds for a team that could persevere through controversy and outside distractions.

Most of the players in USC’s locker room are used to being punished for the mistakes of others and being asked about issues out of their control. In the big scheme of things, this week should not be that entirely shocking for them.

So Shaw concocted an elaborate lie about how he suffered his injury that lasted less than 24 hours. So USC senior running back Anthony Brown quit the team and decided to call Sarkisian a "racist" a week later on social media before deleting his post and making his account private hours after it became public.

It’s certainly embarrassing but perhaps not quite as distracting for a team as having your coach fired in the middle of the night at an airport, and then, less than three months later, watch his replacement quit just before your bowl game.

“It didn’t compare at all to [the past season],” Cravens said. “We got a completely different coaching staff five games into the season. Of course, it sucks what happened to Josh, and it’s unfortunate what A.B. said in the press. But we got bigger things to handle. That was the game today. And next week we got Stanford, and that’s all we’re thinking about.”

These Trojans might not be as talented as the national championship squads Sarkisian coached a decade ago, but they have proven themselves to be perhaps the most resilient group the school has ever seen.

After Lane Kiffin was essentially fired outside an airport tarmac, the Trojans responded by beating Arizona the following week and winning six of their next seven games. When Ed Orgeron quit after not being named the permanent head coach, they beat Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl.

On Saturday, they ushered in the Sarkisian era with one of the most dominating offensive performances the school has ever had, after one of the most difficult weeks the school has ever experienced.

“I think when everybody is talking bad about SC and saying it’s a clown college, or they’re so distracted, and it’s a joke at this school, we just laugh,” Cravens said. “We’re going to play our game no matter what happens.

“People may think they know what’s going on at SC, [but] what they don’t know [is] it’s a band of brothers getting ready to play the game. Think what you want. We’re SC. We’re the SC that y’all have known. We’re the SC that’s ready to fight against everybody we play every weekend. I think we showed that today.”

Cody Kessler, who passed for a career-high 394 yards and four touchdowns and ran for another score, shook his head when asked if the distractions got to the team. So did Leonard Williams, who had seven tackles and an interception.

“You saw last year that we went through so much, and we’re tight because of it,” Kessler said. “Coach Sark makes it about us. And we practice Monday through Friday and never once did these guys get rattled, and it showed tonight.”

Sarkisian saw what last year’s team went through when he was named the team’s head coach before the bowl game. He knew how tight the team was and only felt the need to bring up the Shaw and Brown incidents twice before returning the focus back to football.

“I don’t know if it brought us closer, but it reinforced what we’re about,” Sarkisian said. “They went through a lot last year with the transition, and there were moments where these guys had to cling together. And ultimately, it showed.”

The focus on Saturday finally returned to football at USC. If the Trojans continue to play the way they did against Fresno State, it might actually remain that way for a while.