Beaten at the final, devastating ticks of the clock again? Beaten by their own reckless confusion again? Beaten not only on the scoreboard, but through the heart again?
Three weeks after losing a game on a Hail Mary pass, the USC football team has been beaten by a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me finish, and their once promising season is now splitting at the seams.
The stands at Rice-Eccles Stadium were a sea of black, the Utah players were draped in black, and late Saturday night all that black darkened the green field in a dancing, bouncing mob that eclipsed USC’s conference championship hopes.
With eight seconds left in a game that the Trojans had seemingly locked up two minutes earlier, Utah’s Travis Wilson completed a one-yard pass to a diving Kaelin Clay to give the Utes a 24-21 victory Saturday night that filled the field with students and seemingly emptied the Trojans season.
On a warm, windy evening in the Wasatch Range foothills, USC fell to 5-3 and out of the Pac-12 Conference South Division race while the largest football crowd in this stadium’s history -- 47,619 -- saw a blackout game become a knockout game.
“We’ve seen it all,’’ said a clearly shocked USC Coach Steve Sarkisian, whose team is 4-2 in conference play.
They’ve now officially seen it all twice. To those who thought it could never get worse than that loss to Arizona State on that final pass, well, in some ways, it just got worse.
This was not bad luck, this was bad play-calling, bad defense, and simply a bad football presence at the worst possible time. This was a team that played and coached as if “Fight On’’ were not a 60-minute philosophy but a 57-minute chant.
Bad enough that the Trojans gave up a touchdown in the first minute of the game because they didn’t realize a dropped backward pass was a fumble, which was promptly returned 53 yards for a touchdown by Davion Orphey. Turns out, that was nothing compared to that bookend touchdown in the last minute.
“It kills morale to lose like this,” said linebacker Su’a Cravens. “But we’re a band of brothers, we’ll be back next week.’’
It’s a long way back from this, a defeat snatched from a seemingly uplifting victory with the Trojans holding a 21-17 lead and driving downfield in the final minutes. If they keep holding the ball and killing the clock, they win. If they attempt a field goal, they ensure at least an overtime.
After two consecutive running plays gained eight yards, they reached the Utes’ 28-yard line to set up a third-down-and-two play, an obvious time to give the ball to Javorius Allen, who had already gained 105 yards. But no, Sarkisian called for a screen pass that slipped from quarterback Cody Kessler’s hand.
Now it was fourth down, and the second-guessing of Sarkisian continued. He decided not to attempt a field goal. He again decided not to give the ball to Allen. He instead called for a pitch to Nelson Agholor, who stepped out of bounds one yard short of a first down.
No field-goal try? “At the time the wind was really blowing, I just didn’t feel great about it,” Sarkisian said, adding, “We’ve been a little injured at that position.’’
Indeed, kicker Andre Heidari was struggling with a groin injury and backup Alex Wood has never attempted a field goal in college. The wind was howling, so in hindsight that decision doesn’t seem so awful.
But no Allen? “I thought we called a good play,’’ said Sarkisian. “Nelson got to the edge but unfortunately his toe nicks out of bounds before he gets the first down.’’
In that case, it felt like Sarkisian’s wildly creative offensive mind nicked out of bounds, the coach outthinking himself at the worst possible moment. This is USC. This is a tradition built on power football. Just give the ball to Allen.
Remember another time USC failed on a fourth-and-two play that eventually led to a loss? How about USC vs. Texas in the BCS championship game, a failed run by LenDale White with Reggie Bush on the sidelines, a play that involved a USC assistant named, um, Steve Sarkisian.
“I’m speechless right now,’’ said Utah running back Devontae Booker after emerging from the on-field party late Saturday.
You know who’s not speechless? Yeah, that same LenDale White, the former Trojans running back who has become one of this USC team’s most notable critics.
“OMG…I’m so (expletive) right now,’’ he tweeted.
The Utes still had to travel 73 yards for the touchdown, of course. But lucky for them, the Trojans were not prepared for the sort of quick-hit passing that carried them there.
“We were hoping they would run the ball,’’ said linebacker Hayes Pullard. “Then they figured out we were in man.”
Actually, they did run the ball on the key play of the drive, a stunning 18-yard sideline run by Wilson to give Utah the ball on the Trojans’ one-yard line. Yet the Trojans admitted they weren’t prepared for that, either.
“We didn’t hustle to the ball,’’ said Cravens.
Such was the indictment of the finish, of the game, of a USC program that is falling back into turmoil, one final, devastasting tick at a time.