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Trojans learn it's not over until it's over against Sun Devils

Trojans learn it's not over until it's over against Sun Devils
USC Coach Steve Sarkisian watches the final minute of the 38-34 loss to Arizona State, which scored three touchdowns in the final four minutes of the game. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Holy Hail Mary.

It couldn't happen, but it did. Arizona State did a Doug Flutie on USC's Trojans on Saturday night at the Coliseum.

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It was Nov. 23, 1984, all over again. Only when Flutie floated his prayer for his Boston College team to win, it was against defending national champion Miami in the Orange Bowl.

Still, this one was huge. It was USC, getting had in the ultimate final dramatic moment, in the Coliseum, where so many wonderful and memorable things have happened in sports, going all the way back to the 1932 Olympics.

Fittingly, ASU receiver Jaelen Strong made his catch in the peristyle end. Several stories above stood plaques commemorating the legends of the place. They were probably wowed, too, in their own sort of bronze-faced way.

This game was over. The Trojans had salted it away. It was going to end like so many you've seen. The losing team tries one last desperation heave. It bounces around, falls to the ground, they shake hands and take a shower.

It was the one, the only hope for the Devils from the land of the Sun. Ah, so aptly named.

Last play of the game, 46 yards away, ASU trailing 34-32, USC already filing away its fourth victory in five games. And what happens? The best player on the field, wide receiver Strong, leads an armada of ASU receivers downfield.

Mike Bercovici, not even the team's No. 1 quarterback, but filling in ably for the injured Taylor Kelly, uncorks his hope and gets his prayer answered.

Strong, who USC Coach Steve Sarkisian says afterward was being double covered, finds the ball two steps before the end zone. There are supposed to be two or three more helping the double-cover guys. There seemed to be none.

The ball descends like a nine-iron to the green and Strong snatches it out of the air in full stride, never slowing as he flies into the end zone.

You've seen these things on TV. Mostly Flutie, over and over again on shows meant to bring back the most exciting memories. But in person, it just sends your heart into your throat.

Expect to watch this one on SportsCenter for about a week. Don't turn away once. The shock will never wear off, nor will the memory.

The Coliseum is a place of proud Trojan lore. But you never saw a place empty so fast. Those who remained sat with blank looks on their faces.

Right near the end zone where Strong stole USC's heart, the band played "Fight On" for a few faithful fans.

It sounded hollow. How could it not? Hard to puff into that trombone when you are in shock.

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This was such a nice opportunity for the Trojans, on a weekend when college football came apart at the seams.

Four of the top six teams lost—No. 2 Oregon, No. 3 Alabama, No. 4 Oklahoma and No. 6 Texas A & M.

USC came into the game 3-1 and No. 16, and despite its disappointing flop at Boston College, might have started to creep into the conversation.

Ah, not now. Not for a while. The Trojans may need psychological sessions more than blocking drills next week.

"This leaves us with one loss in conference play," said Sarkisian, "and a sick feeling in our gut."

The game, where the final score should have been 34-32, provided something for everybody in the surprisingly large crowd of 70,115, on a day when the Dodgers were at home in a playoff game and temperatures just before game time stayed near 100 degrees.

There were lots of wide open offense, lots of silly penalties, and more indication that USC's Cody Kessler is about a year away from really being something special.

Also, lots of Swiss-cheese defense. Which, in the end, brought the knock-you-on-your-back finish.

"You learn that the game is never over until it is," Sarkisian said. "You learn that the hard way in games like tonight."

USC actually made the same kind of play near the end of the first half last week against Oregon State. But when it is a play that ends a game and wins it, it is a wow.

There seems to be funny stuff in the water for sports people in Los Angeles these days. Clayton Kershaw gets banged around, the vaunted Angels get banged around by the un-vaunted Kansas City Royals.

And now this.

UCLA, also a vaunted team, is playing Utah at the Rose Bowl as this is being written.

Pray that one of Brett Hundley's key third-down passes isn't batted away by a spaceship.

Oh, one last final tidbit. On the network announcing crew that night in Miami 1984, when Flutie threw his miracle, was a man named Pat Haden. Yes, the same Pat Haden who sat in his USC athletic director's booth Saturday night and was as stunned as everybody else.

We don't make 'em up, pally.

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