LOS ANGELES -- As much as the USC players tried to avoid something like it, the sign was impossible to miss. A cluster of Trojans were walking, heads bowed, toward their locker room after a 13-9 loss to archrival UCLA ended their chance to play in the BCS title game, when a pretty brunette screamed.
Instinctively, the players looked into the crowd and there it was, a big sign in blue ink: "Welcome back to reality, Trojans. Enjoy the ride down! Just ask Miami, the view won't be so pretty any more."
On the Rose Bowl turf, UCLA players were making statements like "Dynasty Done!" to anyone who would listen.
Perhaps the Bruins were getting a little ahead of things. Maybe it was just wishful thinking. But make no mistake, there are some internal concerns about whether the USC program is on the brink of a downward spiral.
The loss to UCLA not only ruined the Trojans' bid to win their third national title in four seasons, but it also marked the end of an amazing NCAA-record streak of 63 games in which they had scored 20 or more points. It was the low point of a very inconsistent season for a team that was supposed to be carried by its defense. However, the defense just didn't make a lot of big plays. The Trojans were only fifth in the Pac-10 in sacks per game (2.42) and seventh in third-down defense (38.1 percent conversion rate). They were also sixth in turnover margin (plus .25 per game). No star player emerged.
The offense was nowhere near as dangerous as 2005. Of course, that had to be expected, right? After all, USC did lose two Heisman Trophy winners from last year's team, quarterback Matt Leinart and tailback Reggie Bush. Still, no one expected the Trojans to lose to two unranked teams, Oregon State and UCLA. USC lost games it had been finding ways to win.
No wonder the Trojans' matchup with Michigan in the Rose Bowl presented by Citi is so vital to USC. There is also plenty of talk that this game is a battle for No. 1 in 2007. Both Ohio State and Florida will lose their starting QBs, while the Wolverines and the Trojans both figure to return a strong nucleus. USC has heard positive news from many of the junior players who are considering a jump to the NFL. Star tackle Sam Baker says he is coming back next year. Defensive end Lawrence Jackson and nose tackle Sedrick Ellis say they are, too.
Most expect superstar wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett to leave, which would hurt since USC already will be losing senior Steve Smith on the other side. Center Ryan Kalil actually might be even harder to replace. But the defense should be better and quarterback John David Booty will have another year of experience. The Trojans figure to return seven starters on offense and 10 on defense to play a road-heavy schedule. Plus, we keep hearing about all of these great No. 1 ranked recruiting classes USC has stockpiled. And yes, the Trojans appear to be on their way to another ballyhooed recruiting class again this February.
It all sounds fantastic, but it would become a very long offseason if the Trojans can't stand up to Michigan. This is a crossroads game for USC. The Trojans must finish this season off on a strong beat. They have to snuff out any lingering doubt that grew from the UCLA debacle, which was indicative of a very un-Trojan-like season.
"I don't think we have to prove it to other people, I think we have to prove it to ourselves," conceded Booty. "It's all about us and we want to get this taste out of our mouths and get back on the winning track. We're really not trying to prove anything to anybody else."
"It's almost like it's something you have to do," added Jarrett. "You have to be forced to move on and look past that and I think if you sit and dwell on it, history is going to repeat itself. That is what we've done. We had that week off to get over it, and then we went back to work. We're over that loss and we've been focusing on Michigan ever since and we're ready to play."
Over the past month Lane Kiffin, USC's offensive coordinator, and Booty came under some fire locally for the flat performance. The Bruins' defense rattled a Trojans O-line that appeared flawed. It wasn't so much the two sacks. It was four false starts and a bunch of other big hits on Booty, who struggled under the heat. It's a blueprint Michigan with its awesome defensive front figures to follow. The Wolverines did lead the Big Ten in sacks this season with 3.42 per game. Booty, the Pac-10's top passer with a 25-9 TD-INT ratio, says he isn't worried about the pressure or about the criticism. That is part of the deal, he says, when you're the starting quarterback of a high-profile team. The challenge is getting things going again.
USC assistant head coach Steve Sarkisian thought the whole offense was "hesitant" in the UCLA game. Yet, no one inside the program can explain why.
"I really can't," Booty said. "I've thought about it for quite some time and I kind of had to finally let it go and not worry about it anymore. I've got to focus on what we've got going now. I really can't answer that. I don't know why that happened, but that's why you play the game. You hate to lose that one but you've got to move on."
Of course, maybe it was just inevitable. USC had won 34 consecutive games and back-to-back national titles before its loss to Texas in the 2006 Rose Bowl. Miami had a similar run. The Canes won 34 consecutive games during 2000-02, before an overtime loss to Ohio State in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl. A wicked tailspin followed. The Canes went from going unbeaten in 2001, to losing one game in 2002, two games in 2003 and three games in both 2004 and 2005. Miami has dropped six games this season. Given how well USC supposedly has recruited, it's hard to imagine the Trojans sinking like Miami did. Then again, who predicted the Canes would fall that hard?
Some former Miami coaches say it is virtually impossible to sustain that level. Great players jump to the NFL early. Assistant coaches move on. Younger players don't know what it took to get to that level. Worse still, they say, it takes a whole lot of great breaks to win 34 straight and eventually the breaks start going the other way. It is all such a delicate mix.
As usual, head coach Pete Carroll doesn't seem worried though. "We've always bounced back," Carroll said. "I really don't expect anything different this time around."
Bruce Feldman is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine.