USC finds itself out of the conversation

LOS ANGELES -- Taylor Mays sat before the media in full pads. USC's All-American safety answered questions in a measured tone and didn't react to the cheering and banging on the opposite wall that grew progressively louder. He didn't raise his voice so he could be heard over the Stanford celebration.

Stanford, a week after scoring 51 in a win over No. 8 Oregon, had just handed Mays' ninth-ranked Trojans a 55-21 whipping.

The Cardinal remain in the hunt for the Pac-10 title. And, for the first time since 2001, USC does not.

The cinder block wall didn't prevent Mays from hearing how happy that made Stanford, which probably raised a few eyebrows when it attempted a 2-point conversion when it led 48-21 with 6:47 left.

"They deserve that," Mays said of the celebration. "They deserve to have that feeling. They beat us. To get beat like that is disappointing."

The Trojans have never in their storied football history given up as many as 55 points. The 111 points over their last three games is the worst three-game stretch in school history, eclipsing the 110 they had surrendered in the three games before playing Stanford.

"I'm not sure I have the right words to describe being humbled like this," Trojans coach Pete Carroll said. "I don't really know where to put it. We got our butt kicked on defense and they out-executed us. There were no surprises. It was a humbling day."

Stanford rushed for 325 yards. While not as much as the 391 Oregon piled up against the Trojans, it was gained without misdirection or artifice. The Cardinal didn't seem to care much if USC knew what was coming. They just lined up and ran over them.

"They blocked us, time after time," said Carroll, who suffered his first loss in 29 November games as the Trojans coach.

Let's quantify how much Stanford's offensive line blocked the Trojans.

Four Trojans finished with double-digit tackles. Three of them were defensive backs. Stanford only needed to pass 22 times, so those weren't tackles after passes.

Stanford was 8 of 11 on third-down and 1 for 1 on fourth down. USC didn't record a sack.

"It's almost sickening," Mays said. "To be a senior and leave a legacy like this, it's sickening."

It's one thing to watch USC look bad at Oregon. That 47-20 defeat was shocking. But not as shocking as watching the Trojans getting buried in the Coliseum, where they had previously won 47 of 48 games. And to get manhandled like that by Stanford, the most academically elite BCS conference university, which can't possibly match the athletes USC has collected through the years with its top-ranked recruiting classes, right?

"It sure looked like they had better athletes today," Carroll said.

It took 10 games to figure it out, but it's clear now: Yes, USC does sometimes need to rebuild. And, no, it can't just insert eight new defensive starters and a true freshman quarterback and expect to seamlessly become another juggernaut, particularly with a handful of starters regularly sitting out with injuries.

The Trojans now enter a bye week with in an unusual position: Out of the conversation. At 7-3 overall and 4-3 in the Pac-10, their potential bowl destination could be a variety of places -- Holiday, Sun, Las Vegas. But it won't include a BCS bowl. And the season won't end with USC ranked in the nation's top-four.

So an an era has ended. Mays shook his head over the possibilities.

"It's crazy," Mays said. "If you would have told me that before the season, I would have looked at you like you were crazy. We still get to play football. Some teams don't go to bowl games. I know that not our standard, but we'll get up for anything."

Mays also rejected the notion that the USC dynasty is over. The program will bounce back, he said.

"It's hard to bring it all the time. It's hard to be that successful, year-in and year-out. That's why so few programs do it," he said. "But, no, I don't think [the run is over]. We're still going to get recruits. We've still got Coach Carroll and that's all that matters."

For the first time in eight years, it might be reasonable to ask: Is it?