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Among the traditions beloved by USC's supporters--and reviled by its Pac-10 opponents--is the cheer that gets heavy rotation when the Trojans put a game out of reach: "We are...SC!" In recent years that chant has been not only grating but also gratuitous: With a quick-strike offense, a predatory defense, a Heisman Trophy winner or two and often huge margins of victory, USC cut an unmistakable figure. But this season's team, despite a 6--0 start and the No. 3 ranking in the BCS standings, has none of those characteristics. In fact there's enough uncertainty about these Trojans that their cheering section ought to think about replacing the declarative with the interrogatory. It's not so much "We are...SC!" but "Who is...SC?"
Are the Trojans a juggernaut in low gear, so powerful that they have gone undefeated without even hitting their stride? Or are they a team primed for a fall, with a daunting four-game stretch beginning on Nov. 11--home games against Oregon, California and Notre Dame and a trip to the Rose Bowl to play UCLA (box, page 51)--that could knock them off the national championship track and force them to go slumming at some late-December bowl?
Each of USC's last three victories, over Washington State, Washington and Arizona State, has been by seven points or fewer, which has prompted rather pointed criticism. After a 26--20 win over Washington on Oct. 7, ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said the Trojans "should apologize for the way they've been playing." Arizona State quarterback Rudy Carpenter wasn't quite as harsh after the Sun Devils' 28--21 loss to USC on Oct. 14, but he declared that the Trojans aren't even the class of their conference, much less the third-best team in the nation. "Cal and Oregon are a little more experienced," Carpenter said. "I think they are better than USC."
No one would have dreamed of dismissing the Trojans that way during the past three seasons, when Matt Leinart (Heisman winner, 2004) was rolling up huge yardage at quarterback while Reggie Bush (Heisman winner, '05) and fellow tailback LenDale White were taking turns faking out and flattening tacklers, leading USC to one undisputed national championship and another shared title. But all three stars headed to the NFL after last season, leaving junior John David Booty at quarterback and a passel of untested talent, including Emmanuel Moody and Chauncey Washington, at tailback. Add to that an unusually high number of injuries and a defense that hasn't been nearly as opportunistic as it has in the past, and it's clear that USC is no longer scary good, even if it is good enough to win. So far.
That assessment doesn't seem to ruffle the Trojans, who will grant you that they have lacked the swagger and big-play ability of recent years--as long as you concede that even Leinart, Bush, White and friends couldn't improve on an undefeated record. "We've set very high standards around here, so for people to wonder about us is a very natural thing," says coach Pete Carroll. "We haven't been scoring 50 or 60 points on teams the way we did last year. This year it's more like 30. So, yes, it's different. But 6--0 is 6--0, and it would be a mistake to take that for granted. Don't worry about us. We'll be just fine."
A few close calls against unranked opponents don't necessarily stamp a team as overrated, of course, any more than regular-season dominance guarantees a title. USC's 2004 national champions had to come from behind to beat Virginia Tech, while edging Stanford by three points and Oregon State by eight on their way to the title. Last year's Trojans thrashed almost all comers until Texas beat them in the championship game, snapping their 34-game winning streak. It's also not terribly instructive to compare the '06 Trojans with the '05 edition, because almost any team would pale next to that prolific outfit. Last year USC topped 60 points three times and hung half a hundred seven times--or six more times than they have this season. "Only one 50-point game," Washington State coach Bill Doba says. "Wow. We should all have such problems."
The Trojans have gradually come to grips with the different approach they're going to have to take to reach a third consecutive BCS title game: cutting down on turnovers and penalties, leaning more on a running attack that will eat up ground in smaller chunks than Bush did, and playing intelligently in close games. It's not glamorous, but it works. "The kids questioned themselves a little bit early on, wondering how come we weren't winning by as much," Carroll says. "So we've been very straightforward about who we are and where we are and what's going on." Or, as linebacker Rey Maualuga puts it, "It's not going to be blowouts. Just wins."
It seemed that the Trojans weren't going to miss a beat when they opened by waxing Arkansas 50--14 on the road, but they haven't come close to a performance that complete since. Their 28--22 victory at Washington State on Sept. 30 wasn't sealed until safety Taylor Mays intercepted a desperation pass near the end zone on the final play of the game. They held on for the six-point home win over Washington when the Huskies couldn't get off a play from the USC 15 before time expired. The following week the Trojans squandered a 21--0 lead against Arizona State, which tied the game when Booty misread a coverage and threw a pass directly into the hands of cornerback Keno Walter-White, who returned the interception 37 yards for a touchdown. "A horrendous mistake," Carroll said. The collapse earned scattered boos from the fans at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum before the Trojans drove 74 yards on the ground--64 of them on 10 carries by Washington--for the winning score.
Although he has been guilty of the occasional glaring error, prompting rumblings from fans and media that Carroll should have chosen redshirt freshman Mark Sanchez as the starter, Booty has been efficient, completing 63.3% of his passes for 13 touchdowns and four interceptions. He hasn't thrown with Leinart's accuracy, particularly on deep balls, but teammates have been impressed with his composure when things aren't going well. He has also shown great patience, on and off the field. As he was leaving practice last week, a white-haired fan offered some unsolicited advice about throwing to his backs more, and Booty listened, nodded politely and thanked him for his suggestions.
It was a subtle reminder of the scrutiny that comes with being the USC quarterback, especially the one who has to follow Leinart. But Booty,who threw only 56 passes in mop-up duty while sitting for two seasons behind Leinart, seems emotionally up to the task. "It doesn't bother me that people expect a lot," he says. "But I can't expect myself to do the things Matt did, not right away. We've had some pretty high-profile guys here, but it took time for them to become that. I'm not trying to be Matt, I'm just trying to keep helping us put wins together and learn as I go."