After six years around Southern California football, guard Jeff Byers has far too much experience with inexplicable upset losses. He also knows why the Trojans always seem to respond so well to them.
"It all starts and ends with Coach Carroll," said Byers, a sixth-year senior. "He can't control everything that happens on the field on game day, because that's up to us. But he always does a good job of getting us refocused and getting us right back on track."
Pete Carroll's refocusing abilities are about to get a doozy of a test in the next few weeks, starting with the 12th-ranked Trojans' return to the Coliseum against Washington State on Saturday night.
With a 16-13 loss at Washington last week, the Trojans (2-1, 0-1 Pac-10) rolled to the fringe of the national title race and jumped into an early hole in their quest for an eighth straight conference title and BCS bowl berth.
Although the Cougars (1-2, 0-1) are much improved from the inept team that received a 69-0 shellacking from USC in Pullman last year, oddsmakers believe they'll provide not much more than a chance for USC to work on its many offensive flaws before next weekend's showdown with No. 6 California.
The Trojans can't afford to count on any such thing. If they don't want to be the group that ends the school's remarkable streak, an offense that's scored just 31 points in the past two games has got to get better in a hurry.
"It never feels good," Byers said. "You've got an ache in the pit of your stomach, and you remember that feeling for the rest of the year. In fact, that's what motivates you for a long time after that. You still have that feeling, and I know it's driving us this week."
The Trojans have lost just six games since Texas beat them in the Rose on Jan. 4, 2005, ending a 34-game winning streak and denying USC its third straight national title. Five of those losses were major upsets, yet the Trojans still haven't lost back-to-back games since the fourth and fifth games of Carroll's tenure in 2001.
USC spent the week working on the details of execution and timing, but the return of arguably the team's two most important players also should help. Freshman quarterback Matt Barkley is expected to return from a bruised right shoulder to start in place of Aaron Corp, who played unimpressively at Washington, while All-American safety Taylor Mays also is expected back from a right knee injury.
"I feel like if I was out there (last week), maybe I could have set the tempo for our guys and got things going," Mays said. "I don't like to (miss practices or games), because I feel paranoid, like Coach Carroll is going to take my scholarship if I don't play."
Carroll wants the Trojans to regain their balance offensively after passing for just 110 yards against the Huskies. USC has perhaps the nation's best offensive line and a talented fleet of tailbacks, but its mediocre passing attack _ which is still missing deep-threat receiver Ronald Johnson, out for another month with a broken collarbone _ allows defenses to overload with nine defenders against the run, daring USC to beat them with a pass.
"We were out of whack last week," Carroll said. "That's not the way we want to play. It's not the style or philosophy that we live by. ... The running game is in good order, but that's not the way we've formulated our offensive plan over the years, so we want to get back to that."
Washington State will get a formidable test in its first real road game of the season, coming off last week's overtime win over SMU. The Cougars switched quarterbacks last week, with Marshall Lobbestael leading just their third victory during coach Paul Wulff's tenure, and the running game will be altered by the season-ending injury of tailback James Montgomery.
But as 45 1/2-point underdogs at the Coliseum, the Cougars realize the task they're facing.
After watching Washington's win over USC, Wulff said his players "probably believe that in this league, anybody can beat anybody at any time," he said. "It gives somebody hope every week _ and on the underside of that, everyone knows that if you don't play well and you turn the ball over, you're not going to give yourself a chance."
Byers believes Washington State's improvements this fall will prevent USC from looking past this game to the Golden Bears, Notre Dame and meetings with both Oregon schools looming in October.
"They can play football," Byers said of the Cougars. "They're not last year's team. They were so beat up last year. We don't want to play anybody like that. It's not good for the league to have that happen to a team."