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Spander: Carroll endures a rare rough season at Southern Cal

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Pete Carroll is making the best of it, which always has been his way. The letter writers in L.A. are down on him, because lately he hasn’t done what they wanted. Pete’s even a little down on himself, not that the enthusiasm doesn’t wash over the disappointment in a second or two.

The Emerald Bowl for Pete and USC is right here in the town where he was born, San Francisco.

“I’ve always been a NorCal guy,” Carroll said on Tuesday at media day for the Trojans and Boston College at AT&T Park, where Saturday evening they connect in a game which four months ago never would have been imagined.

A game where USC — with the same 8-4 record as BC, which was whacked this season by Oregon and Stanford — is now getting smacked about by questions of players’ eligibility.

First, running back Joe McKnight was put under investigation for allegedly using a vehicle owned by a businessman. Then Monday, USC announced tight end Anthony McCoy and offensive tackle Tyron Smith, both starters, and backup defensive lineman Averell Spicer didn’t make the grade academically.

Carroll, who grew up in Marin, played for University of Pacific and spent two years (1995-96) as defensive coordinator for the 49ers, can be wonderfully candid, but he still has that coaching mentality. Forget who isn’t here, think about who is.

The reason the Trojans are here instead of the Rose Bowl or the BCS championship game, after the previous six years playing in one or the other, is because they tied for fourth in the Pac-10.

For seven straight years, they had been first.

“We didn’t accomplish the things we’ve always accomplished,” Carroll said.

He became coach in 2001, and it was a joyride. Until 2009.

Until seven defenders from last year went to the NFL. Until quarterback Mark Sanchez, who could have returned, entered the draft and was taken high in the first round by the New York Jets.

“A lot of guys have left our program,” Carroll said. “We were 11-1 [in 2002] and Carson Palmer, Troy Polamalu, Justin Fargas and a bunch of guys took off, and we responded by winning the national championship. But this time, we weren’t able to respond.

“We weren’t able to replace people. Our productivity didn’t match like it did in the past. We wouldn’t admit it, wouldn’t own up to it until it became 8-4, and then it hit us, hit me. We’re in a different phase now. We’re not playing this thing from the top down. We’re playing this thing to get back up to where we were years ago. In essence, we’ve gone retro.”

Whether McKnight, who led USC in rushing with 1,014 yards and eight touchdowns, can play still is unknown.

“The compliance office is checking,” Carroll said. “We’ll keep Joe [in L.A.] until it’s resolved. We can’t dwell on it. There’s a challenge ahead of us, and we’ve never seen a challenge we didn’t try to take to the max. But this has been an uncharacteristic season for us.”

A season that brought USC to a halt and Pete Carroll home.

Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com and www.realclearsports.com. E-mail him at typoes@aol.com.