October 10, 2008

McKnight battles own expectations

There are moments when USC tailback Joe McKnight barely looks human on the football field.

He possesses ridiculous speed, and can change direction as sudden as a blink of an eye. He can catch passes, return punts, block and run the ball.

He moves between tacklers in a manner usually reserved for video games, and he can change a game with some of the nations' most big-play ability.

With those skills, though, comes a burden. Before he even signed with USC, McKnight was the next Reggie Bush.

But even the exterior expectations can't compete with the burden McKnight puts on himself. Whatever's being said in the outside world can't compare with what McKnight's hearing in his head.

Like a man confessing to a crime, he knows it.

"Yeah," McKnight said, "I'm my own worst critic."

This was never clearer than after then top-ranked USC lost 27-21 at Oregon State.

By everyone's admission, McKnight was dreadful. He fumbled on a crucial third down. He dropped passes and muffed a punt. He couldn't create.

"My game didn't come to me. I made bad plays. I tripped us up, It's my fault," McKnight said. "You can't blame the offensive line. You can't blame the defense. You can't blame nobody but me. I fumbled. I dropped a punt. I dropped the pass. It's all my fault."

The Trojan coaches, including Pete Carroll, saw McKnight sit alone in his locker, taking the entire weight of the loss on his young shoulders.

"He is a very sincere, serious kid. He felt it," Carroll said. "Of course it's not true, but he meant it.

"As hard as that was to watch, it was a good thing. It shows how much he cares and how meaningful it is to him."

Carroll said the ability to hold himself to the highest standards puts McKnight in the same company as a number of great players like Ronnie Lott, Jerry Rice and Bush.

"Guys that live by high standards, that's what keeps them going," Carroll said. "They won't settle for anything less than the best they can do.

"They can be so demanding. It's really characteristic in great players."

In the aftermath of the Oregon State loss, McKnight didn't pout. He and running backs coach Todd McNair talked about the emotion and the disappointment - and about how to channel all of it in a positive way.

"You have to teach him how to look at it realistically. It's good that he's like that, but you have to put things in perspective," McNair said. "I talked to him about it. I have had to spend time with it. I think he understands.

"That game just hurt him."

McKnight bounced back from the loss to lead USC in all-purpose yardage against Oregon, and he was especially effective in the passing game, catching five balls for 86 yards.

"I played all right Saturday," McKnight said. "I was OK."

McKnight didn't manage to get in the end zone against the Ducks. In fact, he's not scored since the first quarter of Trojans' season opener against Virginia.

"It's been frustrating to me the last few weeks not getting in the end zone," McKnight said. "I'm trying not to get too frustrated so I can still make plays."

McKnight's not the only player on the USC roster that sets the bar to unreachable heights.

"It's his competitiveness. It's no different than with Mark Sanchez," Carroll said. "Only if it takes you in the wrong decision is it bad. For the most part, wanting to do well and live up to expectations - it's a good thing."

Even if McKnight manages to rush for 200 yards or catch 10 passes against Arizona State, come Monday, he won't feel too great about what happened.

For everyone, even McKnight, perfection is unattainable. And always reaching for something that can't be grasped helps fuel the Trojans' sophomore back.

"I always feel like this. It's nothing different," he said. "I just go out every Saturday and try to make plays."

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