November 24, 2008

Bye week puts season in perspective

Ah, bye weeks.

The weekend off gave the USC football team a chance to get healthier, physically and mentally. It gave the Trojans an extra week to get ready for Notre Dame, and it gave USC a chance to recharge.

Luckily for me, I enjoyed the same benefits, using the weekend to give my nasty case of carpal tunnel syndrome, likely caused by 1,000-word practice reports.

Also, the weekend without Trojan football gave my mind a chance to regroup and figure out my favorite things about this USC football season, so far.

Constant Improvement

Before the season even began, the country knew Rey Maualuga was a great football player. NFL Draft experts had the Trojan middle linebacker pegged as a sure-fire first-round pick.

Everyone knew this - including Maualuga.

Maualuga admitted the expectations hindered his on-field performance, and until he got the hype and the future out of his head, Maualuga wasn't going to be at his best.

Now, though, Maualuga's head appears to be clear, and it's showing on the field. Maualuga's lead USC in tackles over the Trojans' past six outings.

Since missing the Trojans' win over Oregon, Maualuga's made 47 stops, and he's flown all over the field, playing like his preseason reputation.

Everyone expects players buried on the depth chart to make the biggest steps forward, but Maualuga's giant leaps forward have been unexpected and fun to watch.

Growing Pains

Joe McKnight, Kevin Ellison, Shareece Wright and Maualuga are among the Trojans who have missed games because of injuries this season.

While USC fans may have mourned these losses, several other Trojans took the opportunities to assert themselves as valuable parts of the Trojan arsenal.

With McKnight out against Washington State, ex-USC running back Broderick Green had the definitive performance of his Trojan career with an extended look in the blowout win. Tape from that game certainly won't hurt his chances of landing at a high-profile school.

A few weeks later, it was Marc Tyler's turn to shine because of a door opened by McKnight's absence against Washington.

Then there's Kevin Thomas, who has seen his playing time spike with Wright out for the year. All Quito's done is lead the team with three interceptions. Thomas has also broken up six passes.

With Ellison out with a knee injury, Will Harris has stepped into the starting lineup and brought his physical style.

The point is here that when a Trojan goes down, like their most explosive runner (McKnight), their best all-around cornerback (Wright) and maybe their best true football player (Ellison), there's someone waiting to step in and step up.

Watching second-string guys slide into the lineup to succeed is always fun.

And that's been happening all season long.

Rapid Fire

From a reporting standpoint, covering the USC offense has been pretty interesting. Trying to figure out what the plan is from week-to-week has me feeling like I'm watching "Mullholland Drive," except no one on the offense is Naomi Watts. One week its pass, pass, pass. Then, it's run, run, run. And, it never seems to look quite right. Still, it's hard to argue with success.

With the certainty of more than a month of BCS debate, this time of year always makes me feel strange about one thing - cheering for teams you dislike to benefit the teams you do like. I was in this position over the weekend, rooting for Michigan to defeat Ohio State, hoping Michigan State could sneak its way into the Rose Bowl - one of the more unpleasant experiences of my life. Trojan fans sick of going to the Rose Bowl have had to cheer for Oregon State to keep winning - hoping the Beavers can win a share of the Pac-10 championship and the spot in Pasadena. Weird times.

Has Mark Sanchez gotten better or has he regressed? This question has come up on the message boards and in interviews over the last few weeks. I think he's still improving, and he's been much more careful with the football. Sure, the vertical passing game has taken a backseat somewhat against some of the conference's better teams, but Sanchez isn't hurting the team either. With all of USC's weapons, he doesn't need to throw for 400 yards and four scores a game. He needs to help the team win in spots, and he's been doing that.

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