- The Washington Times - Monday, October 3, 2005

Southern California has decided to make the national title chase interesting by handicapping itself.

After opening the season with three-peat worthy disembowelings of Hawaii and Arkansas, the Trojans have taken a nasty turn toward complacency, condescension and the same brand of hubris which conspired to bring down impenetrable ancient Troy from within.

For the second consecutive week, USC didn’t come prepared to play, spotted a team a double-digit lead and relied on its massive edge in talent to overwhelm its competitive indifference.

Last week at Oregon, the Trojans scored 45 unanswered points and turned a 13-10 halftime deficit into a showy 45-13 victory.

There were no such style points Saturday at Arizona State, when they came from 18 down at intermission (21-3) for a misleadingly lopsided 38-28 victory. As any impartial witness will tell you, the Trojans were one near-catch-turned-interception from losing in Tempe.

With USC ahead 31-28 and less than four minutes left, both the ASU offense and Sun Devil Stadium were rocking. State quarterback Sam Keller, who had just finished eviscerating USC’s defense, was driving the Sun Devils toward another go-ahead score when receiver Derek Hagan volleyballed what would have been an impressive catch at the USC 40-yard line directly to USC safety Kevin Ellison, who was badly beaten on the play. Three plays later, USC’s LenDale White exploited the disheartened Sun Devils by bolting 46 yards for a game-sealing touchdown. But both the win and USC’s postgame comments were far from impressive.

In the first half, USC scored just three points and committed nine offensive penalties — an obvious sign that they weren’t focused — and Heisman winner Matt Leinart wasn’t the best quarterback in the stadium, much less the nation.

And after the Houdini job in the desert, when apologies and promises of renewed commitment were in order, both White and USC coach Pete Carroll engaged in a verbal pridefest.

“Basically, they believe they can’t be beat,” said Carroll, practically bragging about a red-flag attitude most coaches would list somewhere between fumbles and felonies on the anathema meter.

Said White, “First quarter, second quarter, third quarter — whatever. Here at SC, we teach ‘Finish.’”

All of a sudden, White’s not just a tailback, he’s a teacher — perhaps an authority on the use of mid-name capitalization.

Finishing is a football virtue, but White and Co. seem to have forgotten other helpful pigskin cliches concerning such topics as starting strong, staying focused, remaining humble, fighting for 60 minutes, ignoring one’s hype, etc. As talented as this team is, and nobody else is close, USC clearly has a nasty case of that historic dynasty-crippler known as delusions of invincibility.

They’re saying all the wrong things. They can be had. And Notre Dame is hungry and waiting in South Bend.

Gameballs and Gassers

This week’s individual honors go to Nebraska’s Zac Taylor and Michigan’s Mike Hart, while team leather goes to Alabama, Penn State and Maryland.

Taylor set Nebraska records for completions (36) and passing yardage (431) as the Cornhuskers moved to 4-0 with a 27-20 overtime victory against Iowa State. Hey, it only took Bill Callahan’s offense 20 months and 15 games to find its way from the West Coast to Lincoln.

Hart came back from a hamstring injury suffered against Notre Dame, running the ball 36 times for 218 yards in a road upset of the Spartans. Michigan is a completely different offensive team with the sophomore tailback in the lineup.

Alabama is back among the game’s elite after giving first-year Florida coach Urban Meyer a humiliating 31-3 lesson in SEC-style football. The victory was the Crimson Tide’s first over a top-five team at home in six years and just coach Mike Shula’s second in 10 tries against ranked squads. The victory almost exonerates Shula for crippling playmaker Tyrone Prothro (broken leg), who was lost for the season late in the fourth quarter with the game long decided.

Penn State (5-0) throttled Minnesota 44-14 to put the kibosh on Laurence Maroney’s Heisman hopes and set up a Big Ten showdown with Ohio State this weekend in Happy Valley. With one more win, the Nits will be bowl-eligible and can put an end to the decade-long JoePa retirement watch. The last time this many men were sacrificed for one man’s ego, the pharaoh was prancing around Giza in a hard hat. JoePa’s egress has been anything but grandiose and graceful, but at long last, he’ll almost certainly exit a winner.

And kudos to Maryland and coach Ralph Friedgen for putting a season-making spite stake in Virginia 45-33. Nothing takes the sour out of a season like playing spoiler for a border-state school, particularly when that school calls itself the University.

Gassers go to Vanderbilt and Meyer.

The Commodores wasted an opportunity for their first national ranking and first 5-0 start in 50 years by reverting to form in an inexplicably awful 17-15 loss to Middle Tennessee State.

Meyer has now officially lost his genius label after the Gators failed to score a touchdown for the first time since 1992 in the 31-3 debacle in Tuscaloosa. Even maligned Ron Zook managed to keep that streak alive. In the decisive first half, Meyer’s Gators had more three-and-outs (six) than first downs (five). Let’s make that Urban Mire.

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