TEMPE, Ariz. – Like many others before them, USC’s football Trojans traveled to the desert Saturday night in hopes of finding themselves.
They are still hopelessly, haplessly lost.
It was their first game in a truly hostile environment, their first game against a credible spread offense, their first chance to objectively measure their progress after four games of controversy and crisis.
In the wake of a 62-41 embarrassment to Arizona State, the Trojans second Pac-12 loss in two attempts, their second bad loss in five games, two legitimate questions surfaced.
Is their season already finished, and is their coach finally doomed?
The answer to the first question could perhaps be found in the 612 yards allowed by the trusted Trojans defense, the four turnovers committed by the shaky Trojans offense, and several long moments required to cart star Marqise Lee off the field and up to the training room in the fourth quarter after a punt return resulted in a knee injury that Coach Lane Kiffin admitted “didn’t look very good, didn’t sound very good.”
All this, and the Trojans have games remaining against, among others, Stanford, Notre Dame and UCLA. You make the call.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s going to be hard for us,” said quarterback Cody Kessler.
The answer to the second question – Can Kiffin survive this? – could perhaps be found Saturday in three starkly different sideline scenes.
In the first minute of the second half, Kiffin skipped down the sideline pumping his playcard-holding fist after Tre Madden ran untouched for 24 yards to give the Trojans a 21-20 lead. He’s rarely seemed more inspired.
Yet exactly 1 minute and 8 seconds later, Kiffin was once again frozen in place, staring befuddled into space after the Sun Devils had stunningly rocked the joint with a long touchdown pass and an interception return for another score.
Finally, midway through the fourth quarter, when Marion Grice was running 28 yards for the Sun Devils’ seventh touchdown, Kiffin wasn’t even watching the game, as he was deep on the sidelines commiserating with some offensive players.
From excited to exasperated to vacant, one must surely wonder if Kiffin’s USC head coaching career has finally run its course.
Before this game, it seemed as if Pat Haden, USC’s benevolent athletic director, would not make any coaching moves this fall. Despite overwhelming criticism, Haden had steadfastly supported Kiffin with the presumption that no coach could handle a team better under the sort of NCAA-mandated scholarship restrictions that limited the Trojans to 55 recruited scholarship athletes Saturday, or 15 fewer than in normal Pac-12 road games.
But now, well, what if this season has already truly been lost? What if the Coliseum becomes even more empty? What if even more big donors fail to fill the end-zone suites or leave early from their 50-yard-line perches? The Trojans’ next game is in 12 days at the Coliseum against Arizona, on a traffic-choked Thursday night. What can Haden think about the future of his program if the place is barely one-third full?
Asked about his job situation Thursday night, Kiffin said, “That’s the last thing I’m worried about. We have to find away to coach better, to play better.”
Yet none of that is happening now, and none of that seems anywhere on the horizon, and how does Haden continually condone any of it?
Late Saturday night at Sun Devil Stadium, the Trojan band blared the fight song for a few weary fans, barely a dozen media members gathered to listen to Kiffin, and the USC players trudged to the bus offering grimaces and weary platitudes.
If you didn’t know better, you would think that USC was actually a lower-tier Pac-12 program like, say, Washington State. Check that. Washington State beat the Trojans this season.
Todd Graham, the Arizona State coach, even spoke about USC as if it were a lower-tier program, saying, “We didn’t just beat them, we dominated them.”
Perhaps the worst thing for Trojans fans was that the domination didn’t really occur until their team just wore down physically and mentally after that 1-minute 8-second turnaround in the third quarter. Once D.J. Foster scored on a 74-yard touchdown pass from Taylor Kelly, once Alden Darby then intercepted and returned a misguided Kessler pass 46 yards for a touchdown, the strength of the Trojans simply disappeared.
Even though their offense would score three more touchdowns, their defense continually folded, allowing four Arizona State runners to gain double-digit yards while Kelly threw for 351 yards and three touchdowns and wasn’t sacked once. All this, and Monte Kiffin isn’t around to blame anymore. This was the first test of new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s new system, and the Trojans flunked.
“It just seemed like they were chipping for six, eight yards here and there…. They kind of got a snowball rolling and we couldn’t stop it from there,” said linebacker Devon Kennard.
Unless the snowball can be stopped, unless the bad momentum that began in the middle of last season can somehow be thwarted, the entire Trojans program could soon be buried.
Perhaps the most appropriate lasting Trojans impression from this long night was made in the second quarter, when a perfect Kessler pass across the middle bounced off the pads of Lee and landed in the hands of Sun Devil Osahon Irabor.
Lee threw up his hands in disgust as he walked off the field. When he reached the sidelines, he swung his helmet against a folding chair. The chair then made like this USC season and completely email@example.com