At the end of a long month, in the final moments of a long season, Matt Fink, the backup Trojans quarterback who played hero once before, trotted onto the SDCCU Stadium field Friday night to a roar from the cardinal-and-gold faithful who still held hopes of a strong finish.
But around Fink, everything cardinal and gold was already coming undone. In a dismal defensive effort, No. 22 USC had yet to force an Iowa punt — and wouldn’t until late in the third quarter. Its special teams had been anything but special, allowing yet another untouched return for a touchdown.
And now, Kedon Slovis, the Pac-12 offensive freshman of the year, the only bright spot in a dark night that would end in a 49-24 drubbing by the No. 16 Hawkeyes, sat on the sideline, surrounded by trainers working on his injured elbow.
The Holiday Bowl was supposed to be about finishing strong and starting anew for USC, which had won five of six to finish the season and save its coach’s job.
Here was a chance to begin the healing within a fan base still seething with the decision to keep Clay Helton. Here was a shot for some partial vindication, for some meager sort of redemption. Here was an opportunity to prove their pride was still intact.
But as Fink took the field at the start of the fourth quarter, with the Trojans trailing 35-24, the sort of inexplicable magic that upended Utah in September never materialized.
Instead of seizing its opportunity for a strong finish, USC (8-5) was dealt its worst bowl loss since 1948, confirming every doubt and frustration its fans raged about throughout this season.
A snap soared over Fink’s head. Iowa recovered on the doorstep of the end zone. The Hawkeyes (10-3) scored. And a long offseason of discontent began in earnest.
“Tonight just wasn’t our night,” Helton said.
Even before Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa sacked Slovis and forced a fumble and an injury, ending the freshman quarterback’s night early in the third quarter, the Trojans already had been tiptoeing around disaster.
Slovis threw for 260 yards and two touchdowns before being sidelined, capping an unforgettable freshman season with another impressive performance. As his defense and special teams threatened to derail the Trojans, the quarterback’s play had been just enough to keep them on track.
“It kind of deflected our flow,” USC receiver Michael Pittman Jr. said. “Just one thing led to another, and that’s what happened.”
The extent of Slovis’ injury was unknown immediately after the game. But without him, that flow was quickly lost.
Against an Iowa offense that had failed to score four touchdowns in a Big Ten game all season, USC gave up four scores in the first half. After weeks of preaching third-down defense, the Trojans allowed the Hawkeyes to convert six of eight third downs over the first three quarters.
By game’s end, Iowa had put up 49 points, the most it had scored all season. Only Oregon scored more against USC this season.
“We just tried to focus on getting off the field, which we pretty much didn’t do all game,” senior linebacker John Houston said. “We had a bad game.”
That bad game could have adverse consequences for a few USC assistants, especially on the defensive end. Clancy Pendergast’s job was already in jeopardy, with staff changes expected to come after the bowl game.
But after a brutal Holiday performance in which Helton stood on the sideline, a decision on his defensive coordinator appeared to be made for him.
The same could be said for John Baxter, USC’s special-teams coach, who’d spent all season answering questions about his questionable kick coverage. After the Trojans tied it at 14-14, Ihmir Smith-Marsette sprinted 98 yards, untouched, on his way into the end zone.
After the game, Baxter was asked if he deserved a chance to fix USC’s special teams. “Of course,” he responded.
But the kickoff return was a culmination of a tough season on that side of the ball. It was also the last time the Trojans would be tied with their Big Ten counterpart, as their own offense stalled and a plodding Iowa group pushed down the gas pedal.
In a clash of conflicting styles, it was a more dominant performance than the Hawkeyes could have hoped for.
After the game, Helton said he believed these Trojans were “on the cusp of being great.”
It certainly didn’t seem like that on Friday, as Iowa wasted no time exerting its will. The Hawkeyes’ first two drives lasted nearly a full quarter (14:44), tiring out a Trojans defense that couldn’t get off the field.
From the start, Iowa’s game plan appeared to be working wonders.
In the three-plus minutes USC did have the ball in the first quarter, the Trojans’ offense appeared poised for their own brand of fireworks. After nearly throwing a pick-six, Slovis completed his other six passes, capping the drive with a short touchdown to Drake London. It was London’s fifth straight game with a score.
USC scored again on its next possession, as Slovis watched Vavae Malepeai slide past Iowa’s secondary on a wheel route and delivered a perfect pass from 16 yards out.
But without the ball, USC’s high-powered offense couldn’t make up for issues in just about every other facet of the game.
“It’s a terrible pill to swallow,” right tackle Jalen McKenzie said.
Still, as everything fell apart, Fink tried to keep the team moving. With only pride on the line in the final minutes, he flung one last pass into the Iowa secondary.
It was picked off by Nick Niemann and returned 25 yards for a touchdown, adding another insult to an already insulting bowl finish.