Eight snaps. In a bulging Coliseum that shook with roars and swayed with groans, one football season for two teams was defined in eight snaps.
That’s all it took. On a Saturday night when one team rose to the national championship game while the other blew into an outpost bowl like a sad tumbleweed, the difference between them could be found in eight snaps.
The inspirational brilliance of Notre Dame, the utter chaos of USC, everything illuminated in a 22-13 Irish victory that could be described in those eight snaps.
“We had a shot,” Trojans Coach Lane Kiffin said late Saturday.
But they missed that shot. Again. In particular, Kiffin missed that shot. Again. The coach who has enraged fans with his play-calling and game management unfurled more mind-bending strategy that turned this game on its ear hole during the fourth-quarter goal-line sequence found in those eight snaps.
The Trojans could have beaten unbeaten Notre Dame. They could have kept the top-ranked Irish from playing for their first national championship in 24 years. They could have saved their season and set the course for their future.
Instead, in eight snaps, they ended their regular schedule mired deep in the muck of five losses and heaps of disappointment and a torrent of boos. Lots and lots of boos, and if I had been in the stands, I would’ve been booing too.
The eight snaps began late in the fourth quarter with the Trojans on the Notre Dame two-yard line after a 53-yard pass from freshman quarterback Max Wittek to Marqise Lee. USC trailed by nine, and needed a touchdown, and needed it quick — but it was clearly within reach, no need to settle for a field goal.
First problem — the offense was casually huddling and running to the line without any urgency. Second problem — once the Trojans lined up, guard Marcus Martin jumped offside for a five-yard penalty, the second game-changing USC penalty of the game.
“You’ve got to make those plays,” Kiffin said.
But first, you’ve got to call those plays, and Kiffin didn’t.
Curtis McNeal ran for three yards, and consecutive pass-interference penalties gave the Trojans first and goal at the one with hopes of saving the drive. But then, Kiffin seemingly became the only person in the building who didn’t remember that Notre Dame’s most memorable win this season came after it stopped Stanford on four consecutive running plays at the goal line in overtime.
First play? Wittek tried to sneak over the goal line. He was stopped. Second play? Wittek tried to sneak again. He was stopped. With all those running plays draining valuable time off the clock, Kiffin was finally forced to call a timeout.
And what play did he devise during that timeout? Another run into the middle, this time by McNeal, who was also stopped, bringing up fourth down.
Finally, finally, Kiffin decided to pass the ball. He had one receiver, Lee, who had bewitched the Irish defensive backs into those pass-interference penalties. He had another receiver, Robert Woods, who had consistently beaten the Irish defensive backs and had earlier caught an 11-yard touchdown pass.
So where does he order Wittek to throw it? To redshirt freshman fullback Soma Vainuku, who had caught eight balls all season, or 177 fewer than Lee and Woods combined.
Vainuku dropped Wittek’s low pass in the end zone, and the Trojans were finished.
“They have a good scheme, they had great players down there, they did that to everybody,” Kiffin said. “They stopped the guys from Stanford, they stopped everybody they played down there, that’s really the story.”
So Kiffin knew about Stanford and still called those running plays at the goal line? That’s really the story, especially since he also called for two runs on goal-line plays early in the fourth quarter during a drive that ended — surprise, surprise — in just a field goal.
Moments after those eight snaps, dozens of Notre Dame players wearing their glittering gold helmets ran out onto the Coliseum field in a shiny stampede while the Trojans wandered idly away, some of them falling to their knees in frustration.
The only Trojan who truly sprinted off the field was Kiffin. But one person he apparently will not have to avoid is Athletic Director Pat Haden, who last week told me, in this column, that he is backing Kiffin “150%.”
Considering that Kiffin has led the team to four losses in its last five games — including the unthinkable double defeats to UCLA and Notre Dame — this decision will continue to puzzle many fans, who walked away Saturday night thinking mostly about those eight snaps.
“You’d like to think that that many snaps, you could score a touchdown,” Kiffin said.
You’d like to think that with this much talent, USC would not be 7-5.
You’d like to think that after starting the season ranked No. 1 in the country, USC would not have completely disappeared.
You’d like to think things will be better next year. But on another lousy Saturday night in a season full of them, those eight snaps might tell you to think again.