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There are hard, fast, obvious collapses, can’t-miss horror shows that draw gaping crowds and stories hashing out the salacious details of the carnage. You know their bloody faces: Notre Dame, Nebraska, Minnesota; earlier in the year, Michigan and Louisville. All enduring or just recovering from the prospect of historic failure.

Looks like we basically agree about USC in the top twenty.
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But there are softer crumblings at the same time, slow, quiet deterioration that doesn’t draw At the beginning of the season, I suggested USC was so obviously on track to resume its run as national juggernaut du jour that I compared not ranking the Trojans number one to not liking The Beatles – i.e. foolishly contrarian and disingenuous. Barely a month in, I was suddenly questioning the entire arc of the program. Another month (and another loss) on, and I’m holding my nose to rank SC at all after its first victory of the season over a winning team, and an uninspiring one at that over a 5-4 team that might not crack .500 by season’s end.

Not everyone is so quick to pounce on a 7-2 BCS hopeful that‘s still by any measure the gold standard in terms of pure, blazing, rippling physical talent. The Trojans are twelfth in the Associated Press poll, twelfth in the "Master Coaches" poll, fourteenth in the BCS’ Harris poll, fourteenth in the BlogPoll and fifteenth in USA Today’s coaches poll. This is not an epic collapse.

It’s also not clouds of lightning and inevitable doom filling the sky when these guys walk out of the tunnel. It’s not even what commenter Tom predicted after SC’s loss to Stanford:

...the loss to Stanford...was pretty clearly a fluke; if USC doesn't turn the ball over five times, it wins in a walk.
In other words, the problem is not that USC has morphed into a merely above average team. The team sleepwalked through its first few games this season, thinking it could get by on rep alone, but now that this team's lost to Stanford, I think they'll be a lot more focused and blow through the rest of their schedule. Or it could just be John David Booty.

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Hmmm...could be. But Booty hasn’t played has barely played since then, and SC clearly has not blown through the rest of its schedule despite fielding, as projected, one of the most dominant defenses of Pete Carroll’s tenure, one that ranks in the top seven in the country in every major category and statistically surpasses the 2002, 2003 and 2005 units almost across the board. No, the defense has blown through the first three-quarters of the season every bit the monster as expected. It’s clearly the offense that’s limped – literally.

I don’t put as much emphasis on injuries as I should most of the time – it’s an excuse; a good excuse, sometimes, but every team has injuries and I barely recognize them unless they affect an unusually large number of starters or an obvious leader – yet the ill effects of ill health on the Trojan offense are unmistakable. For all its depth, there is a clear difference in SC’s performance since linemen Chilo Rachal and Kris O’Dowd and leading rusher Stafon Johnson all went down at Washington.

USC Offense
Def. Rank* Total Yds. Rush Yds. Yds./Carry 3&Out/Punts Sacks/Neg. Yds. Scoring**
Idaho 85 420 214 5.0 2/2 1/20 38
Nebraska 112 457 313 8.3 2/4 0/13 42
Wash. State 82 509 197 5.9 0/0 1/8 44
Washington 104 460 224 5.7 4/5 1/19 27
Stanford 98 459 95 2.5 2/4 3/34 23
Arizona 50 276 146 3.4 4/7 3/43 13
Notre Dame 53 462 227 6.3 2/7 0/3 24
Oregon 73 378 101 3.1 3/5 1/15 17
Oregon State 10 287 100 2.8 4/7 2/50 17

* Current national rank of opponent’s total defense.
** Points scored by offense on drives not beginning inside opponent’s 25.

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In more easily-digested form:

Total Yds. Rush Yds. Yds./Carry 3&Out-Punts Sacks-Neg. Yds. Off. Pts.
Pre-Injury Barrage 461.5 239.5 6.2 2 - 2.7 0.75 - 15 37.8
Post-Injury Barrage 372.4 133.8 3.6 3 - 6 1.8 - 29 18.8

The picture is more stark if you extend the "pre-injury" period to the dead midpoint of the season to date, through the first half against Stanford, just before Booty cracked his finger and tossed four victory-killing interceptions in SC’s second half demise. Carroll refused to blame the loss on Booty’s injury, but he hasn’t played since missed the next four games, and the offense hasn’t delivered a complete performance since: once turnover-generated points against Arizona, Notre Dame and Oregon State are filtered out, the offense is averaging less than half its scoring production over the first four games, and even that’s inflated by the good numbers against lame duck Notre Dame, a game the Trojans could have won with a lonely field goal. Rachal has been back in the lineup the last two games, but O’Dowd is still questionable and fellow line travellers Sam Baker, Thomas Herring and Matt Spanos have been in and out of the lineup with nagging wounds in the meantime.

What happened to all those hyped blue chip running backs?

Chauncey Washington: Leading rusher in five of SC’s last seven games, but only averaing 4.4 per carry. Broke 100 yards once (106 at Washington).
Stafon Johnson: Easily leads at 7.5 ypc and had big games at Nebraska (144) and Washington (122) but missed two full games with injury and has only returned as the third option (17 carries combined in the last three).
Joe McKnight: Double-digit carries behind Washington in three of the last four games, but only one touchdown. Best game: 128 total yards against Arizona, 118 on two plays.
C.J. Gable: Had 12 carries in the first two games, out for the season with an ab injury.
Herschel Dennis: Ageless sixth-year wonder has 62 yards on 15 carries and has not touched the ball at all in five different games.
Desmond Reed:Two touches in the last eight games.
Allen Bradford: Fourteen carries the first two games, zero in the last seven. Has three catches.
Marc Tyler: Injured, redshirting.
Broderick Green: No touches; appeared against Notre Dame. Apparently redshirting?
Emmanuel Moody: Transferred to Florida.
The vaunted ten-man backfield (and, yes, vaunted by SMQ) has been effectively reduced to a three-man backfield, and only two of them – Johnson and McKnight – are showing occasional flashes of star power. Why? Most likely because the offensive line is no longer doing this:

As Kirk Herbstreit astutley noted, Brent Musburger could look a blue chip in Stafon Johnson’s shoes that night. And since every opponent since has created the same lanes running against Nebraska, we might as well float another cliché: injuries or not, the Trojans simply are not who we thought they were. Not on offense, anyway, not anymore. And unless they run the table through the end of the toughest stretch of the schedule with scores better than 20-13, I still don’t think we can expect to think of USC the same way again any time soon.