The ancient Coliseum clock ticked to a straight-up 6 p.m. The weary fans began screaming in straight-up joy.
Cameron Smith rumbled into the end zone after covering half of the field after an interception — a pick six at six! — and the rediscovery was official.
A building shook. A football team danced. A nightmare, for now, ended.
A program that lost its football coach and could be on the verge of losing its athletic director found its heart Saturday when the bedraggled toppled the unbeaten in a bruising game that felt like a giant sigh.
“U-S-C!” chanted the student section, again and again, as if reminding everyone that, on this day anyway, the unranked Trojans were the Trojans of higher expectations after their 42-24 victory over third-ranked and previously undefeated Utah.
The madness of the domination was matched by the madness of the postgame scene, players running to salute with the band, running into the arms of their families, running into the tunnel past fans who pounded walls and chanted names. In the middle of it all, interim Coach Clay Helton tucked his ballcap low on his eyes like a good ol’ coach and smiled at all his crazy kids.
“This one was for them,” he said. “They have been through so much.”
Three hours from suffering their third consecutive regular-season loss for the first time in 14 years, the Trojans, while still only 4-3, jumped back to the edges of the conference championship conversation.
Three hours from allowing another hyped season to slip into irrelevancy, the defense punched enough to hold Utah star running back Devontae Booker to 62 yards, Cody Kessler absorbed numerous Ute punches while missing on only seven of 28 passes, and the Trojans offense finally got physical by scoring twice on fourth-and-goal plays from the one-yard line.
“They were the definition of ‘Fight On,’” said Helton.
All this, after the pregame atmosphere reeked of “Fight Over.”
It had been 16 days since the Trojans last showed up on the Coliseum field, but it seemed like forever. Steve Sarkisian had been replaced by Helton, Pat Haden had collapsed on a South Bend, Ind., sideline amid calls for his resignation, and the Trojans had been bullied by Notre Dame.
No wonder the Coliseum was mostly silent during pregame warmups, except for the borderline obscene and misogynistic lyrics firing from the usual pregame rap songs blaring over the loudspeaker. No wonder when the Trojans lineup was introduced on the video board, they were greeted with much of the same silence.
No wonder when Utah scored twice in the first quarter to take a 14-7 lead, that silence became so overwhelming, one could even hear Utah quarterback Trevor Wilson clap before each snap.
Then, early in the second quarter, Wilson threw the ball directly into the hands of freshman Smith for the first of the kid’s three interceptions — three! — and everything changed.
He returned his first pick 41 yards to the Utah four-yard line, and the Trojans scored four plays later. Later in the quarter, he returned his second pick 54 yards for a touchdown.
“What Cam did tonight, those big plays, that won the game for us,” said Kessler.
What cemented it for them was an impressive sequence in the third quarter when the Trojans hit Utah with every bit of strength that everyone said the Trojans lacked.
At the start of the third quarter, with USC leading by only 11, Utah seemingly converted a third down around midfield. But a catch by Britain Covey became a harmless ball on the ground after he was pummeled by Leon McQuay III. The often inconsistent Trojans offense then held the ball for nine minutes while driving 83 yards and essentially finishing the game with Kessler’s one-yard touchdown sneak for a 35-17 lead that was never threatened.
“That was a statement for us, a huge drive that separated the game,” said Helton.
This was, alas, a statement that ends with a comma. While the win at least sent Trojans fans home happy — Will Ferrell even joined the celebration at the Menlo Club across the street from the Coliseum — it couldn’t address the program’s long-term issues
This is still a team in search of a new head coach, as probably only a victory over UCLA and a Pac-12 championship could give the job the Helton.
More important, it doesn’t solve their problem at athletic director. And yes, they still have a problem at athletic director.
Haden’s issues are no longer simply his failure to properly handle the unhealthy reign of Sarkisian, or even his health, which is being questioned after his unexplained collapse at Notre Dame. Now there is the issue of his involvement in more than a dozen nonprofit and corporate boards that pay him a minimum of $500,000 a year, as documented in a Times report Saturday.
To concerns over his judgment and health, add concerns over his time, which seems stretched in the wake of his poor job of vetting Sarkisian’s background and his seemingly minimal search before turning to Florida Gulf Coast University for basketball Coach Andy Enfield, who has gone 23-41 in two seasons with just five conference wins.
Despite the repeated votes of confidence from USC President Max Nikias — alternately confusing and outraging many alumni and boosters — there is still a belief that Haden’s job status is still in flux. These uncertain times are another reason why Saturday’s definitive win was met with such elation.
At halftime, with USC leading, 28-17, Helton gathered the team in the Coliseum locker room and exhorted them to “finish the game.”
They indeed finished the game, extended a season, and, yeah, for now anyway, ended a nightmare.
Follow Bill Plaschke on Twitter @BillPlaschke