Lofa tatupu arrived late and in a bad mood. The USC linebacker had just watched Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers complete his 20th consecutive pass, a little flare that Bears fullback Chris Manderino turned into a seven-yard gain. As the fullback fought to stay upright, Tatupu repeatedly tried to punch the ball from his grasp. Problem was, he kept missing the ball, landing right after right on Manderino's back.
Walking back, Rodgers got in Tatupu's face and said, "You didn't come close to the ball."
Tatupu flashed an expression that said, And your point is? "I don't care," he replied.
In that moment Tatupu spoke for his teammates, his coaches and the Trojans fans among the 90,008 souls who jammed the Los Angeles Coliseum for what turned out to be one of the most electrifying college games of this young season. The most significant matchup west of the Big 12 in 2004, this intrastate smackdown was an epic battle of wits between two of the college game's big brains: Cal coach Jeff Tedford, a turnaround specialist and offensive savant, and his USC counterpart, the defensive mastermind Pete Carroll. When it was over--after Rodgers had tied an NCAA single-game record by connecting on 23 straight passes, after the defending national cochampions had survived a tachycardia-inducing goal line stand and hung on for a 23--17 win--the Trojans did not care that they'd been beaten everywhere but on the scoreboard. They didn't care that Cal had rung up 28 first downs to their 12, or 157 rushing yards to their 41, or 267 passing yards to their 164. They cared about the number in their loss column: zero.
"It's not exactly how you might like [to win]," Carroll admitted, "but when you play a Top 10 team this is what you should expect. It's going to be really hard."
The No. 1--ranked Trojans may yet make it to the Orange Bowl, site of this season's BCS title game, but it's going to be, to parrot Carroll, really hard. Unlike the '03 Southern Cal squad, whose average margin of victory en route to the AP national title was 23.4 points, this crew has not been dominating; three of its five wins--over Cal (now No. 8), Stanford and Virginia Tech--have been uncomfortably close.
Repeating as national champion would have been difficult even without the misfortunes that have befallen USC since the spring. Starting tackle Winston Justice was suspended for the fall semester for flashing a "replica firearm" at another student last February. Starting fullback Brandon Hancock ruptured a muscle in his chest and tore his right ACL; he'll miss the entire season. Wide receiver Whitney Lewis, coming off a dazzling spring and penciled in as a starter, became an academic casualty. Dominique Byrd, the team's best receiving tight end, missed spring ball while recuperating from a knee injury. Having fully recovered, he cracked his left kneecap in a pickup basketball game in July.
It was lemon juice in the paper cut for Carroll that the person with whom Byrd banged knees was Mike Williams, the erstwhile Trojans wideout who would be vying for the Heisman Trophy this season if he hadn't decided to join Maurice Clarett in declaring for the NFL draft last February. (Barred from the draft by the courts in May, Williams was denied reinstatement to USC by the NCAA.) There was the 2003 first-team AllAmerica on the sideline at USC's practice last Thursday, passing time in football limbo by raising his voice at receivers who dropped balls and poking fun at Carroll, who likes to take part in passing drills.
"Look at him pat the ball--he thinks he's a real quarterback!"
When the subject of Dwayne Jarrett arose in a conversation with a reporter, Williams became serious. "I talk to him a little bit," he said. "He's a little homesick or whatever. He's talking about transferring."