Column: USC shows tough side to make future easier

USC's Ronald Jones II scores a touchdown, dragging Stanford's Dallas Lloyd (29) into the endzone during the third quarter of the Pac-12 Championship game at Levi's Stadium on Saturday.

USC’s Ronald Jones II scores a touchdown, dragging Stanford’s Dallas Lloyd (29) into the endzone during the third quarter of the Pac-12 Championship game at Levi’s Stadium on Saturday.

(Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)

There will be no roses, but there will also be no thorns.

One wouldn’t believe that only by looking at USC’s 19-point beating on the scoreboard.

One wouldn’t imagine that only by listening to the profane screams from the USC coaches’ booth next to the press box.

One wouldn’t understand that only by watching the USC players slowly stumbling and staggering from the Levi’s Stadium field amid flapping Stanford flags and dozens of hugging black-and-red jerseys.


At first glance, one would think it was a night of complete USC failure as the Trojans lost a Rose Bowl bid Saturday night in a 41-22 loss to seventh-ranked Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game.

But while there will be no roses, something is blooming.

That something is a USC effort that withstood an early Stanford barrage with two goal-line stands, keeping the score at 13-0 when a blowout was on the brink.


That something is a USC focus that brought the Trojans back with 16 unanswered points that had them leading 16-13 in the final four minutes of the third quarter.

That something is a USC culture that has changed such that, in the end, the Trojans were really beaten by only three plays against a much more complete team.

The last time they met, on Sept. 19, Stanford won, 41-31, in a game that didn’t feel nearly that close. This time, the Trojans went down fighting. This time, it actually felt like they had a chance.

This time, they played hard for new permanent head Coach Clay Helton, they stayed focused in the wake of a one-man barrage by superhuman Christian McCaffrey, and they actually walked away from a loss with heads hanging but hopes high.



Breaking down USC’s 41-22 defeat by Stanford with Bill Plaschke, Chris Dufresne, Gary Klein and Lindsey Thiry. 

“What I take away from it is as a bunch of players coming together as a team, coming together as a family,” said Helton. “These guys are starting to play for each other, that’s what I’m most proud of.”

It was all about those three plays.

First play: Late in the third quarter, third down, Trojans-heavy crowd screaming, Trojans defense jumping up and down, momentum swinging … and Kevin Hogan completes a pass across the middle to a wide-open McCaffrey that the superhuman back carries 67 yards to set up a go-ahead touchdown.


It was part of McCaffrey’s record night of 461 all-purpose yards, in which he threw for a touchdown, ran for one, and caught a touchdown pass. The fact that he will probably lose the Heisman Trophy to Alabama running back Derrick Henry is regional bias of college football at its ugliest. McCaffrey is the best college football player in the country, period, and Saturday proved it.

“We got caught in man [to man] situation, and 99% of matchups he has out of the backfield one-on-one, he’s going to win it,” USC’s Su’a Cravens said of McCaffrey.

Second play: Final ticks of the third quarter, Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler is hammered while his arm is cocked to pass, Solomon Thomas picks up the fumble and rumbles 34 yards for a touchdown.

“It is something that definitely hurts,” said Kessler. “Our guys played so well, put everything they had on that field, I couldn’t be more proud of them.”


Third play: USC pulled back to within five points midway through the fourth quarter when McCaffrey found himself wide open across the middle again, this time carrying the Hogan pass into the end zone for a 28-yard score that essentially clinched it.

In the end, the numbers weren’t pretty. The Trojans were outgained, 417-357. They allowed 262 yards rushing. But Saturday’s leading rushers Justin Davis and Ronald Jones II are coming back next season, and leading receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is coming back, and maybe if the Trojans can do a better job scheming their talented defense, lots of hope could be coming back.

“I reminded them in that locker room, ‘Remember what this pain feels like, we plan on being back here next year,’” said Helton.

Remember, this is a team that shouldn’t have been here. It played its first five games without a healthy coach who was eventually fired, in mid-October, and by the end of autumn was 3-3, with an interim coach, and had lost two centers and two starting linebackers ... the place was a mess.


Helton stopped the bleeding. His kids kept playing hard enough to change the narrative. USC won five of its last six regular-season games including a beating of UCLA, and probably will be favored against whoever it faces in Las Vegas, San Diego, El Paso or wherever its bowl bid takes it.

“We got some hurt kids in that locker room, they gave a tremendous effort to get to this point,” said Helton. “I look forward to having a tremendous bowl game with a bunch of unbelievable seniors.”

From now to that bowl game, many Trojans’ thoughts will be of Pat Haden, the athletic director who has struggled with health issues. He didn’t attend Saturday’s game, and has missed the last seven games after taking a knee and requiring medical attention on the sideline at Notre Dame.

Many feel Haden, having formally given the permanent coaching job to Helton last week, should give up his stressful position to serve in a more statesman-like capacity, such as running the Coliseum renovations.


Before the game, former Trojans great Ronnie Lott openly addressed the issue, offering his endorsement of Haden, saying, “To me, he’s done a fantastic job where he’s been able to weather some really tough moments.’'

But Lott also expressed some worry.

“It’s always a concern, ultimately, when you see somebody on the sidelines that faints, you always worry about that,” Lott said of Haden. “All of us are concerned. The bigger question for Pat is, health versus opportunity. And you’ve got to take health. In his case, we don’t know what that means until we know what that means, then we’ll have a chance to address it.’'

Whatever drama awaits, the Trojans are used to it by now. On a night they lost a championship game, they continued to survive a season.


Follow Bill Plaschke on Twitter @billplaschke