USC's star may be fading

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- The 62 yards worth of field goals that have beaten the USC Trojans in the dying seconds of the past two games might look like the reason nobody is taking this team seriously.

They're just the symptoms, pock marks on the skin. The illness is inside and it's burning this team up.

If a guy hits the ball with his ankle instead of his foot -- exactly what Stanford's Nate Whitaker did on the extra-point attempt he flubbed just before his winning 30-yard kick Saturday night -- everybody's talking about how gritty these Trojans are, right?

To travel to the home of the No. 16 team in the land and match it drive for drive, what an effort. To stand up to a team that likes to bully opponents and a coach who likes to pound his chest, what confidence.

Think about it for a second. This is a program that used to brush aside opponents like these before halftime. There were reasons to be dazzled with what this team could become after Saturday's 37-35 loss. Matt Barkley looked just as good as Andrew Luck, and Andrew Luck looked like a superstar on the cusp.

But half a team doesn't get you very far in big-time college football and the Trojans are dragging the dead weight of a bend-and-do-break defense behind them like a sled. They're 4-2, and by the looks of things, are on a slippery slope toward a mediocre season. It doesn't really matter that they lost in the final seconds two weeks in a row.

"Once again, for the second week in a row, we had a chance to finish someone off -- a very good team -- and we didn't do it," coach Lane Kiffin said.

"It just feels sick to lose," Barkley said.

Give the (Jake) Lockers and Lucks of the world an opportunity to beat you and they usually will. Add on stupid penalties and it's a lock. Linebacker Chris Galippo swears there was no whistle on the play in which he manhandled receiver Doug Baldwin to the turf, setting up Luck and the Cardinal offense in the final minute.

"I know that for a fact," Galippo said.

Forget about Galippo's gaffe -- and he actually played as stoutly as any USC defender Saturday night -- for a minute. There also were the small matters of Stanford's 478 total yards, its 6-of-8 conversion rate on third down, the machine-like performance by Luck, who threw only four incompletions.

It just felt like Stanford was going to score on that final drive, probably because it had scored on virtually every other drive before it. The Cardinal only punted once.

It made for thrilling theater. Is there a better pro-style quarterback in the nation than Barkley and Luck? It didn't look like it Saturday night. Luck hit on 20 of his 24 passes for 285 yards and three touchdowns. Barkley was 28-of-45 (62 percent) for 390 yards and three touchdowns. Neither threw an interception and Barkley looked nearly as mobile as his rival, probably the most surprising development.

But the Trojans aren't going to get back to where they want to be strictly with flash. They're going to need more dirt and more bloody noses. The Trojans were the No. 116 passing defense coming into Saturday night and it looked at times like Luck was playing in a family picnic game. That's how comfortable he appeared at times. He was sacked only once. Galippo got him one other time, but Michael Morgan committed a defensive holding penalty. Sound familiar?

The struggles of the USC defense are wasting some pretty special performances. Freshman receiver Robert Woods (224 receiving yards) is emerging as one of the most dangerous playmakers in the nation. Barkley has become one of the best quarterbacks in the nation and probably won't get a peep of Heisman support this year.

It's all getting snowed under by a defense that either can't grasp defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's schemes or just isn't very good. It certainly isn't very fast. Just imagine what Oregon is going to do at the Coliseum in a few weeks.

"Younger guys on the defense are still making young mistakes," Galippo said. "You've got to expect those types of things. The No. 1 thing is what Coach Kiffin said. There's not a question of us not playing hard."

At a certain point, is anyone going to care how hard they're playing? Is it kind of sad to hear a USC team saying, "But gee, at least we're trying." The Trojans are becoming the fading star that everyone loves to tarnish. Washington celebrated at midfield on the Coliseum turf a week ago. Saturday hundreds of Stanford fans flooded the field. Is this how a 10-point favorite behaves?

"It's amazing," said Whitaker, who transferred from Notre Dame. "SC's always a big rival. It feels great to beat them."

Mark Saxon covers USC football for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.