Football

‘Like deja vu’: What’s the source of USC’s home woes?

The Trojans have looked like two entirely different teams on the road vs. at home this season, and it’s hard to figure out why.

A photo of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum peristyle displaying the scoreboard, which shows Utah beating USC 14-10 in the second quarter. The teams are in the middle of a play in the bottom of the frame.

Plenty was made about USC’s relatively easy schedule heading into the 2021 season. Chief among the reasons for the kind slate was that the Trojans were missing matchups with what seemed to be some of the Pac-12′s top competition in No. 9 Oregon and Washington. Supposedly, it would leave them to feast on the teams at the bottom of the conference.

USC also seemed to have another advantage: It would play only five games on the road compared to seven at home, as opposed to the usual six-and-six split. But no one really seemed to talk about that aspect of the schedule.

Good thing they didn’t.

Saturday’s 42-26 loss to Utah dropped the Trojans to 1-3 at the Coliseum on the young season, and the games haven’t been particularly close. After a big 23-point victory over San José State in Week 1, USC suffered a 14-point loss to Stanford in Week 2, an 18-point loss to Oregon State in Week 4 and now the 16-point loss to Utah in Week 6.

That’s a point differential of -25. Count just the conference games, and it’s -48.

And if you think when it comes to assessing the Trojans’ competitiveness at home that even that number is too high because of garbage time, you’d be right. Remove the fourth quarter from the equation of those four home games, and you get a point differential of -59. In the three losses: -76.

Yikes!

“Definitely hurts,” redshirt senior center Brett Neilon said Saturday. “Three losses in the Coli, it’s not a good feeling … Not a good feeling at all. They all just kinda feel like deja vu.”

So what is it? What is it that causes USC to post those numbers at home while clobbering Colorado and Washington State on the road to the tune of a 2-0 record and a 27-point average margin of victory?

Start with the opponents. To be fair, the Trojans’ early home slate has been harder than their road slate, albeit marginally so. Stanford, Oregon State and Utah have combined to go 10-7 in Pac-12 play, while Colorado and Washington State are a combined 4-7. The disparity isn’t great enough to justify those discrepancies, and it’s far from an excuse. But it at least tells some of the story.

Then, there’s circumstance. The Stanford loss was the final straw in the Clay Helton era, so that game can almost be tossed aside for the purpose of lenient evaluation. In Colorado, freshman quarterback Jaxson Dart turned in an explosive college debut and a rejuvenated Trojan squad came out in full force after halftime, perhaps extra motivated to back Donte Williams in his head coaching debut. And Utah, for what it’s worth, was coming off a bye week. Again, though, these are excuses that don’t nearly satisfy the appetites of those demanding answers.

When asked to try to explain the home struggles following the loss to Utah (USC’s first to the Utes in Los Angeles since 1916, before the Coliseum was built), Williams said the following:

“On the road, it’s only us. It’s a business trip,” Williams said. “So you try to make everything at home the same way. Business trip.”

The implication is that for whatever reason, USC isn’t able to “make everything at home the same way.” Perhaps — and this is purely speculative — there’s a level of distraction surrounding USC leading up to home games. Or maybe the Trojans subconsciously count on crowds that haven’t sniffed sellouts (due to the team’s underperformance, more on that later) to carry them. Again, speculation.

Redshirt senior defensive lineman Nick Figueroa also hinted at a possible cause: Maybe the Trojans take their opponents for granted given their theoretical home-field advantage.

“We can’t just walk in here and expect to win,” he said after the Utah game. “We have to beat these teams. It’s why we play the game.”

Whatever the cause may be, it certainly isn’t sustainable, both for this season and beyond. This year may be a lost cause — the Trojans have quite the uphill battle to win the Pac-12 South, and even a .500 record and a low-tier bowl game is far from guaranteed, much less cause for celebration.

But blowout after blowout at home won’t help much when it comes to packing the stadium in 2022. Fifteen minutes before Saturday’s kickoff, the Coliseum was effectively barren. While it filled out around the game’s start and early in the first quarter, the announced attendance was still just 54,038. That’s 24,429 empty seats for a home game of a program with 11 national championships.

And it wasn’t just the vaccine (or negative test) requirement introduced earlier in the week that contributed to the low attendance. The Oregon State game drew just 51,564 fans, Stanford 56,945 and San José State 54,398. That’s a season-low of 21,522 empty seats. Bottom line? If USC wants to attract fans to the Coliseum, above all, it first has to win — especially at home.

Whatever the cause may be, that’s not happening so far in 2021. Perhaps the best explanation is that there is no explanation at all.

“It’s tough,” a visibly emotional Figueroa said of the home struggles. “We love this team, we love this program, respect this program. I hate to see us having these historic losses at such a great venue where so many legends have been made. It’s a lot bigger than us, and I know it hits us in the heart.”