USC went for its 34th consecutive victory Dec. 3. Its 48th, which would break the legendary Oklahoma streak of the 1950s, would come in whatever bowl game they play next season.

This is the same USC that finished tied for last in the Pac-10 in 2000, the season before Pete Carroll arrived. It played in one bowl game in the five seasons beginning in 1996 and lost it, to TCU.

It went 17-26 in conference games between the 1995 season’s Rose Bowl and the victory over Arizona State on Oct. 13, 2001, which was Carroll’s first in the Pac-10.

As Carroll arrived, no one was talking national championships anymore. Just be in the Pac-10 hunt. Give us a good bowl trip, stumble into Pasadena every now and then, and beat UCLA and Notre Dame – those were the instructions. And if you could shoot a little smoke through your nostrils on the sideline, and make us laugh at the alumni dinners, that would be just great.

The excuses were carved into the Heritage Hall facade by then. The training table situation was inadequate, the academic standards were too high. L.A. kids wanted to get out of L.A. Or at least their parents wanted them out. Better, safer to go to Pullman or Corvallis, and you might even win there.

Besides, these kids only knew O.J. Simpson as a slasher and didn’t know John McKay from Mark McGrath, and they sure didn’t want to play in front of 30,000 empty seats.

That is how you measure the scope of what Carroll has wrought.

He has jammed the extended USC family into a joyous time machine and shipped them back to the ’60s and ’70s, where the only anxiety was finding the right tailgate space. But these days surpass those. This team never, ever loses, and scores 50 points, too, and Carroll jumps around the sideline like his finger is caught in a socket that dispenses electrical bliss.

We have seen nothing like this. Nobody in college football has. Unlike the Oklahoma streakers, USC is operating under the same tight parameters as everyone else. There are 85 scholarships, and there are practice-time restrictions, and there are recruiting rules, and, no, Marcus Allen and Carson Palmer are not allowed to make calls.

At some point everyone has submitted to this enforced parity. Tennessee goes 5-6 and loses to Vanderbilt. Florida State suddenly can’t win an ACC game. Nebraska is ecstatic over 7-4.

Oklahoma, having suffered a swagger-ectomy at the hands of the Trojans in the Orange Bowl, comes up small. Penn State was gone and now it’s back. Nothing is forever and nothing is automatic.

Yet USC never has a bad day. In that sense the Trojans emulate their coach.

"I’ve been asked that a lot," Carroll said the other day. "People want to know if we’re going to have a letdown."

Yeah, like Fresno State did against Nevada, after scaring Trojans fans sober.

"They say you can’t be expected to get up for every game, that you have to have a letdown," Carroll said. "That is the biggest pile of crap I’ve ever heard. We talk about this all the time. You get to play football for only 12 days, out of all the other days of the year.

"The rest of the time we’re focusing just to build up for those 12 days. To me, every one of those games is like a Super Bowl and a national championship rolled into one. It’s what you live for."

Players also live for numbers. They know pro scouts are watching. If the insurance companies recognized egomania were a tangible disease, USC would be placed in the high-risk group. Yet nobody pops off, nobody stirs the pot. And nobody transfers.

The Trojans have solved this by cooking up so many numbers that everybody gets a taste. They have two 1,000-yard rushers and two 900-yard receivers, and, lest we forget, 73 touchdowns.

Carroll still carries the vaccine for elephantiasis of the head, just in case.

"To say we never have issues like that, I can’t sit here and say that," Carroll said. "But we try to deal with it. If a player comes to me and says he wants the ball more, I want to hear that. Reggie Bush wants the ball every time. Matt Leinart wants to throw long bombs every play. That’s better than not wanting to be involved.

"But you try to create a culture where you watch the words you use. You don’t say things like that around the team, or out in public. You appreciate the guys around you. We go over that every day. We say, hey, look at what this guy’s doing, it’s great. Because everyone is very aware of what being part of a team is. And if a guy still comes to me and says he wants the ball more, I say go out there and compete harder and show me you can earn it."

It also helps that Carroll props open the door for freshmen. His depth chart is a living organism, changing and growing daily, and 18-year-olds are almost invited to try to beat out 21-year-olds. If that carrot is held out there, the kids will jump at it. If they sense they’ll never play, they’ll find someplace where they can.

"A team can beat us if it does the right things longer than we do," Carroll said. "Sometimes the game gets you. A funny bounce, a bad officiating call.

"All I hope is that, if we do lose, we’ll lose playing a heck of a football game."

Right now that’s circular logic – USC will win when it plays well. The trick is to always do that. Carroll’s great gift is to find wisdom under his nose, in its simplest form. There might be only one reason the Trojans are doing the unthinkable. They were the only ones who thought of it.

© 2005, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.).

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