Hogue Report: Anxious times for USC

LOS ANGELES – Trojan Nation is in shock. No National Title. No Pac-12 crown. Not even champs of the Pac-12 South Division. Some uncharacteristic losses, and then the capper -- a resounding loss to rival UCLA, which USC has owned over the past decade. This is not expectations. This is not how you sleep well at night.

Since the announcement of sanctions in early 2010, the gloom and despair was quickly turned to hope and excitement. Pat Haden was in Heritage Hall. While there were questions about him, Lane Kiffin was luring top recruits to USC. The new McKay Center was coming. And there were great Trojans emerging like Matt Barkley, Robert Woods, and Marqise Lee.

Now, as of Thanksgiving 2012, the momentum has clearly gone the other way. There is no denying that the program isn’t on the right track. The team is underperforming. They take the field seemingly unprepared, both from an execution standpoint and emotionally. The joy and passion of the game is hard to locate in these Trojans, and the passion of the fans is being directed in calls for change.

After two years of bowl bans and an end of season that came in early December, USC now reaches a Thanksgiving weekend with its hopes of a BCS or other New Year's Day bowl berths replaced by thoughts of El Paso. Those thoughts don’t sit well.

The future is equally concerning. With Kiffin assured of his position, what other changes will be made? Will this preliminarily promising recruiting class be held together? Will the assistant coaches USC wants to retain be coaxed away to other jobs?

And, by the way, the conference is getting tougher. The Pac-10 that Pete Carroll used to run through with traditional tough teams such as Washington and UCLA in decline is now a Pac-12 that is the deepest conference in the nation – with stronger-than-ever coaches building programs, and 8 (maybe 9) programs legitimately aiming to win a conference title over the coming seasons.

It is, without a doubt, an anxious time.

It will continue to be anxious for many after Saturday, but what a difference a win would make. The Fighting Irish fans are buying their tickets to Miami and will descend on the Coliseum this weekend as confident and enthusiastically as they have in almost 25 years. Having these Trojans deflate that balloon would be fantastic. For USC to do that with a freshman quarterback making his first start -- one who will likely be the returning starter next season --would only make it sweeter. And with returning starters across the rest of the team, from offense to defense to special teams, a coach who would be getting his most important, confidence-boosting win, a win really couldn’t be better, and couldn’t come at a more important time.

Is there a shot? Absolutely. The Trojans could have won every game they’ve played so far, and Notre Dame -- while good -- is not invincible. But things have to change for these Trojans. The reasons that they have lost 4 games they could have won, 3 of which they SHOULD have won, can’t keep repeating themselves.

The turnovers. The missed tackles. The blown coverages. The missed assignments that leave an opponent’s best pass-rusher unblocked and gets the QB knocked out of the game. And yes, the play-calling that baffles. The concern is not talent, it is all of these details. But if just once this season the Trojans could show that they can enter a game prepared, come out of the gates with emotion, take the fight to the opponent, and win... well, what a different feel this upcoming offseason will have. The script is written and it’s got all the ingredients. What better way to shake off the loss to UCLA than to get to face No. 1 Notre Dame?

So, again, anxious times for Trojans. Can they make it a disappointing time for the Irish while adding a little holiday cheer for USC? We’ll find out Saturday night.