McKnight a symptom of a program in trouble

SAN FRANCISCO -- Perhaps the most intriguing moment of the Emerald Bowl took place one hour before kickoff, when a group of USC players ran out of the Giants' dugout and onto the AT&T Park field led by an elusive player wearing No. 4.

As a group of fans began chanting "Joe McKnight," the real McKnight came walking out of the dugout in a USC tracksuit, backpack and beanie. They had been fooled by USC's other No. 4, freshman cornerback Torin Harris, who would see the field about as much as McKnight did during USC's 24-13 win over Boston College on Saturday.

After being the center of a weeklong investigation by the school for his alleged use of an SUV, McKnight was unable to clear USC's compliance department in time for the game and was left to watch from the sidelines.

In many ways, it was an unsatisfying end to an unsatisfying season for Trojans coach Pete Carroll, who didn't agree with the school's decision to withhold McKnight from the game.

"I would go about it differently," Carroll said. "I think we should take care of our guys first and make sure we look out after them until we get the information, and then start to figure out what we're going to do about it, but that's a difference of opinion."

It was one of the few times Carroll has felt helpless at USC when it came to the control of his stacked roster, as McKnight was withheld while three other key players -- tight end Anthony McCoy, offensive tackle Tyron Smith and defensive lineman Averell Spicer -- were ruled academically ineligible.

After the game Carroll reiterated that he "would like to be in discussions about other ways" of handling these kinds of investigations and that his players should be given the benefit of the doubt until proven guilty.

As much as Carroll would like to be a part of the investigation and process for handling the discipline his student-athletes get, the reality is that he has no business being a part of it.

This is a program and a university that has lost its "benefit of the doubt" privileges. There are only so many Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo stories one university can take before it must take action against a player even remotely connected to an NCAA infraction.

By the time McKnight is cleared or indicted for this investigation he'll most likely have already announced his decision to go pro, joining defensive end Everson Griffen -- who waited all of two seconds after the Emerald Bowl to leave school -- and wide receiver Damian Williams, who will announce his decision to go pro next week.

"He's out," said running back Allen Bradford about Williams.

Many of the Trojans who will return next season said the Emerald Bowl was the beginning of next season and the first step toward proving they will be a team to be reckoned with. As much as they want that to be the case, it was hard to take this win as a statement game.

"SC has to come back," Bradford said. "A lot of people lost respect for us, and we got to get that back, and it started with this game and it's going to carry on to next season. This is the beginning of the new season. This is the start of our comeback."

Maybe it was the fact that they were playing a football game in a baseball stadium with a hockey-like bench setup. Maybe it was the dancing boxes of Emerald mixed nuts and Pop Secret Popcorn that were running around the sideline mimicking officials and players. Or maybe it was the thousands of empty seats around the "sold-out" ballpark, but this didn't seem like a statement game for a program that has built its recent reputation on seven consecutive BCS bowls.

This game didn't say anything about the future of the Trojans. The only thing it said was that this year's team didn't quit in the end. They didn't mail it in when everyone thought they would. They didn't lie down, even though that would have seemed understandable for a group that had lost three of its past five games, including two at home.

While McKnight refused to talk after the game, Bradford said his teammate gave him some words of advice before kickoff. It seemed like an appropriate rallying cry for a team that at times seemed more focused on its future than its present.

"Joe told me to go out there and make that money," Bradford said. "He told me to run hard and make that money."