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Steve Sarkisian, USC look for that finishing kick

Steve Sarkisian, USC look for that finishing kick
USC Coach Steve Sarkisian talks to quarterback Cody Kessler (6) after the Trojans scored against Oregon State in the fourth quarter of a 35-10 victory. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Steve Sarkisian dropped to the ground, his legs and feet kicking, his left hand slamming the turf.

"Catch the ball!" he yelled. "Catch the ball!"

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It was the middle of a USC practice this week, and the Trojans' first-year coach was imploring a defensive player to seize an interception opportunity.

Sarkisian's intent: Remind the Trojans that no one could let up. Not even the coach.

"You just try to push all the right buttons at the right time," he said.

As USC heads into Saturday's game at Washington State, few fans and opinion-shapers question the Trojans' physical effort. But many are criticizing Sarkisian's play-calling, the staff's game-management skills and the Trojans' ability to finish off opponents.

Last week's defeat at Utah dropped USC's record to 5-3 overall and 4-2 in the Pac-12 Conference.

Utah won on a short touchdown pass in the final seconds. It was the fourth time this season that USC put itself on the precipice of defeat because it failed to extend a drive or make a stop.

The Trojans survived mistakes for a narrow victory at Stanford. They escaped Arizona only when the Wildcats' kicker missed a field-goal attempt.

USC was not as fortunate against Arizona State and Utah.

The Trojans gave up three touchdowns in the final four minutes against Arizona State and lost on a Hail Mary touchdown pass as time expired. Against Utah, they failed to convert on third and fourth downs with just more than two minutes left, and then allowed a long scramble by the Utes' quarterback to set up the game-winning touchdown pass.

"We obviously found a way not to win those two games — and that falls solely on me in getting our team prepared for those moments," Sarkisian said this week. "I have to do a better job."

Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox also accepted blame. "We've made progress," he said. "Unfortunately, it has not shown, and in the end it's all about results."

Former Oregon coach Mike Bellotti said the Trojans have been inconsistent and have appeared uncertain at times on defense. But Bellotti, now a college football television analyst, described Sarkisian and Wilcox as "very good, if not great" offensive and defensive coaches.

"I still don't know that they are all on the same page" with players, he said. "In the first year, that happens."

Blending coaching, teaching and learning styles takes time to come together, Bellotti said.

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"It doesn't happen automatically, and easily, in the first year," Bellotti said, adding, "It takes a year to input a system and find a way to communicate with the leaders of the team that communicate the concepts to the other players."

Ultimately, he said, "Execution on the field becomes a player-driven scenario or phenomenon."

Bobby Bowden, who coached Florida State to two national titles, said he prepared teams for the final minutes of games by setting up countless pressure situations during practices.

But Bowden, who also suffered classic losses in the final seconds, said winning close games goes beyond players' physical execution. "You've got to sell them mentally," he said. "You've got to cover both edges."

Sarkisian spoke repeatedly this week about the need for his team to develop a "killer instinct."

The Trojans already possess it, senior linebacker Hayes Pullard said. "We have it probably 58 minutes of every game," he said. "We just have to exert it 60 minutes instead of 58."

Quarterback Cody Kessler indicated that the Trojans were close to grasping the concept. "We always set ourselves up," he said. "It's just executing plays, that's all it comes down to."

Defensive lineman Leonard Williams said every player had "killer instinct" or they would not have made it to USC. Now they must begin to show it collectively.

"We've been saying that for a few weeks now," he said. "You can't just say it anymore. We just have to come out here and live it."

Sarkisian is looking forward to another opportunity for the Trojans to "do it the right way and finish the game the way we're capable."

That opportunity might come Saturday.

"I'm anticipating one down the road here that we can take advantage of and kind of start to shift the pendulum a little bit," he said.

Twitter: @latimesklein

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