Weirdly, future could still be rosy for Trojans

The Trojans could be celebrating again if they win their final two Pac-12 Conference games. Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US Presswire

LOS ANGELES -- The Oregon Ducks' offense finally slowed to a jog. It was coming off the field after Kenjon Barner scored his fifth rushing touchdown Saturday night, when one of the offensive linemen, steam pouring off his head, yelled, "That's the way you finish, USC!"

Actually, that's not quite accurate. We're about to find out how USC finishes.

After Oregon's frisky herd of green-and-white ponies galloped up and down the Coliseum turf -- barely leaving a cleat mark (or having to break a tackle) -- we heard the usual array of motivations for the remainder of this USC season.

It's about pride. Trojans never quit, etc.

"We've still got a lot of football left," Matt Barkley mumbled afterward.

But it all rang a little hollow in the strange afterglow of a ridiculous assortment of records at the Coliseum -- and a 62-51 loss to the Ducks -- that left the Trojans with three losses nearly three weeks before Thanksgiving.

This would have been a disappointing season last year, when many people were still giving this team a pass as it dug its way out of the NCAA-created crater. In 2012, after everybody had built them up into an unstoppable machine, it's going to be viewed as a dull thud -- perhaps even the kind of thing that can get a team to lay down for the remainder of a season.

But here's what is stunning: Saturday's loss really didn't change the big picture. If these guys can regain their equilibrium after all the spinning, stumbling and chasing they did, they might realize they have exactly the same things to play for now as they did Saturday morning before the Oregon game.

If they beat UCLA and Arizona State in the next two weeks, they'll get a rematch with Oregon in the Pac-12 title game. If they somehow manage to win that game in Eugene -- and, granted, Marqise Lee might have to run backward to reverse the Earth's rotation to do it -- they could even play in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day.

Together now: The what?!

Preposterous, isn't it? The Trojans' defense gave up 730 yards Saturday. I could have served as Oregon's punter and the Ducks still would have won.

You would think Barner might have been a little more fatigued after rushing for 325 yards, but he looked fresher than the USC linebackers when they came off at the end. The sad truth is USC didn't look a whole lot better the week before against an Arizona team that got absolutely embarrassed by UCLA later Saturday night.

So, it's really not about what USC has to play for. It's about what USC has to learn from. Coach Lane Kiffin has been stepping into the line of questioning lately, shouldering some blame for the sloppiness that characterized the first two losses. After Saturday, when the Trojans played crisply and still got blown out (the score is deceiving), it seemed even more relevant to question the coaching.

Oregon's players aren't better than USC's. Line them all up on the track and they're not even faster. Oregon's schemes are better, the players' willingness to buy in more complete.

If USC doesn't get better at slowing down spread offenses, it could be looking at season after season of disappointment. Those philosophies don't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. If anything, they continue to spread, especially west of the Mississippi. Lane's dad, Monte Kiffin, was a great innovator in the NFL. Who knows, maybe he'll one day get a better handle on disrupting these offenses. He's in his 70s now. Does he have the energy for such a lengthy undertaking?

Those are key questions USC fans should be pondering as they gaze to the future. Next year, when Barkley is trying to figure out the NFL (and Robert Woods might be, too), this team doesn’t figure to score 50 points often. Kiffin admitted it might be time to do more than tweak some things. It might be time to reimagine them.

Can they do that under Monte Kiffin?

"If you have back-to-back games like that, giving up over 600 yards, we've got to take a look at what we're doing, obviously," Lane Kiffin said.

People will continue to take their shots at Barkley, whose Heisman chances are bordering on dead. His interception total (10) is disappointing, no doubt. There will be rumblings that Woods isn't as good -- or as fast -- as we thought he was. Some people will take issue with Lane Kiffin's play calling.

But the biggest question hanging over this team in the coming weeks -- and months -- is what it does about molding its defense to the dominant style of offense in its conference. The Trojans will see more traditional looks in the final three weeks, so we might not get a sense of any progress they're making until 2013.

Then again, we just might see it in action three weeks from Friday in Eugene.

Hold on to your hats.