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Hogue Report: How will players react?

9/9/2013

Pathetic. After the performance Saturday night, I can't think of any other word with which to open this column.

Washington State is/was the weakest Pac-12 team, even if they are a bit improved under Mike Leach. And yet USC – at least on offense – played and/or coached as if it was scared to take the field. It was possible that the Trojans could lose to the Cougars coming into the game. But not like this.

And while the papers, columns, websites and sports radio will be alive with commentary about whether Lane Kiffin should stay or go, my thoughts are with the players. What is their mindset? Can they put this behind them and prepare for the next week, and the week after that? And on and on for 11 more? Does the weight that their coach undoubtedly feels show itself to this team? Are they still with him?

I was a freshman at USC when Larry Smith was on the hot seat and eventually lost his job. There was a point in that season when he clearly was under fire from fans, alumni and the athletic director. We could feel the personal stress. You could see him try to change his tactics with us as players, but in a way, it had lost its genuineness. Even some of the more senior players weren't buying in any more. At the end, he had clearly lost the team.

I am not suggesting that Kiffin has lost this team after Week 2. But there is no doubt that the noise from outside of the team is going to get very loud. Everyone on that team heard the boos. Everyone is going to start hearing rumors (if they aren't already). The drumbeat isn't going to let up unless the Trojans have an immediate turnaround. How this team responds is going to be critical.

As much as it's critical for Kiffin, that's not what I'm talking about. It's critical for these players. Regardless of what happens this season for USC or for Kiffin, there's only one group that has a limited time horizon, and that's the players. For coaches, there's always another season, even if it's at a different school or team. For USC and its fans and alumni, there is no end in sight. But for a player, there are only so many seasons, games, and plays. Your window of time to make your mark and leave your imprint comes and goes quickly. And while thoughts of the NFL and individual honors will matter for some, what matters for all are broader questions: Will I be a champion? Will I get a ring? Will my team be remembered? Will I be remembered? Will I make any contribution to the USC legacy at all?

So for players, every year counts. Maybe 2013 turns out to be a great success, and the rebound/turnaround after this WSU loss becomes the story. But even if it doesn't, it still matters greatly. If this young team ever thinks it will be a champion, there's not a month or a week or a game that doesn't give you the opportunity to build toward that end. For us, in the early 1990s, it came three years later. How soon will it be for this group? Time will tell, but these are the times that help stir that desire, and in some create that hunger. You're upset. Use it. You're angry. Own it. You're embarrassed. Never forget it. Realize that nothing is ever given. Realize that every individual part matters, and all are accountable to each other. Realize that leadership is needed and provide it. Play for your teammates, as nothing matters outside of those in that locker room. Stay united. And persevere. Play like Trojans.

So beyond the wins and losses, beyond the play calling and roster moves, I am going to pay a lot of attention to who I see leading this group of Trojans. Who will emerge as the true captains and show poise under the pressure? Who has the character and fortitude to put the distractions aside and keep raising their level of play, and brings their teammates along with them? And who are the ones holding this group together, not letting them splinter or divide? Those Trojans will garner my respect and praise, no matter what else might come.

As I close, I have to mention those performances that caught my attention. On offense, Tre Madden is all I can mention, but certainly can't go without mention. We might be watching one of the great USC workhorse tailbacks in the making. I can sense he's just getting started.

On defense, the entire unit needs praise, as does Clancy Pendergast. Eight months after his arrival, with largely the same talent, the D looks like a completely different squad, stuffing opponents, causing turnovers and playing with a passion and energy that's been missing for several years. Individually, hats off to Torin Harris, who's come under fire in the past but played tremendously with a key interception, several pass break-ups and some nice aggressive tackling. And a welcome back to Morgan Breslin, whose disruptive plays will be needed all season.

On to Boston College.