USC: Don't know what to do, you lose

When Buck Allen ran this TD in from 53 yards out to give USC a 34-25 lead with 3:02 left, it looked like the Trojans were home free. Turns out they were not. Not even close. And then they got Hail Mary'ed as the clock expired to lose to a never-say-die Arizona State team that just kept playing while the Trojans did not, didn't even know what they were running on defense on the final play.

It wasn't just bad luck, it was bad coaching.

And on more moments in this game than we can enumerate here. But what the heck, you don't have to when the game comes down to one last desperate play -- not that it ever should have come to that -- and your team, your USC Trojans, have absolutely no idea what defense they're supposed to be in.

It makes it unbelievably harder when you're trying to make a play and half the guys are in one defense, half in another. When the final call is to defend the Hail Mary and that means you're supposed to have a "jumper" to knock the ball down and there is no "jumper."

And your middle linebacker, Hayes Pullard, is the nearest guy because he's playing deep middle. When asked if he's ever done that before, he says, "Not exactly."

And then he says so much more that tells you how a game USC was leading 34-25 with 3:02 left turned around on the Trojans, 38-34, thanks to a pair of undefended Arizona State TD bombs totalling 119 yards (73 and 46) that exposed how much one team has its stuff together and the other simply doesn't.

"You learn the hard way in games like this," Steve Sarkisian said. Some might say it would be better to have learned these lessons coaching at Washington, Or for this team, to learn them on the practice field. But really, how can you not know that you can't make one call to start the final play and then change it on the fly to another one?

High school coaches get fired over screwups like Saturday night's for USC. One USC coach got fired after a loss that wasn't as disheartening as this one to ASU a year ago. But this one, this one is in a class by itself. So much wrong. So many mistakes.

And yet, all you have to look at is that one play and listen to the USC guys try to explain it. Except for Cody Kessler, who had to watch his winning effort go down the drain from the sidelines. "I got nothing for you," he said, head down, walking out.

But safety Gerald Bowman did. "The coaches called one call and then switched it," Bowman said. Did everyone get the switch? "I don't think so," Bowman said. "In the beginning, it was a Cover 2 call, thinking they might throw short for the field goal. Then they switched it."

And USC tried to get into a Victory Formation to knock down the Hail Mary. "I wasn't sure who was supposed to be in the middle and who was supposed to knock it down," Bowman said, "or whether there was supposed to be a 'jumper'."

He wasn't alone. Middle linebacker Pullard, who for some reason was assigned deep middle, was the nearest guy. How he got there he can't exactly say.

"They didn't know whether to defend the short pass for the three-point field goal or the deep ball," Hayes said. "So they changed the call on the fly. Some people got it, some people didn't.

And this is how it went: "On that call, I was supposed to box out," Hayes said. "But I was the closest guy to it. I should have jumped. It's eating me up. I was doing my job but I should have gone after the ball."

Clearly someone should have. And as it turned out, ASU's Jaelen Strong did, finishing the night with 10 catches for 202 yards and three TDs. Who'd have imagined ASU would target him?

Although USC did have someone jump at the ball the touchdown before, leading by nine points with 2:43 left when Kevon Seymour left his feet, fell about two yards short of the football on a short out route, hit the grass and lay there as Cameron Smith caught it, wheeled around and saw he had no one to beat on a 73-yard TD romp that closed ths one to 34-32.

But all USC needed after fielding a second straight onside kick against a team with no timeouts left was one first down -- or a good punt. USC got neither. Starting at the ASU 44, USC ran Buck Allen, who had managed 229 yards of total offense in this game with two touchdowns, three times for a loss of two yards.

No problem, right? Let Kris Albarado, who specialized in pooch punts last season, come on and kick it dead inside the 10. Only no Albarado. He was on the sidelines because for some reason, USC didn't trust scholarship long-snapper Peter McBride, despite his earlier three snaps on two punts and an extra point.

And walkon snapper Zach Smith was out with a concussion. So linebacker Nick Scholssberg was the man on the other five snaps in this game. "We didn't feel great abut the operation of our normal punting team," Sark said. "We went with a spread punt with Cody and thought that gave us the best chance."

What it gave USC was an 18-yard punt that quickly went out of bounds. A high inbounds regular punt could have maybe taken five, six or seven seconds off the clock. Maybe even made it so that last play that went with 0:07 left would have come too late.

But that wasn't to be. ASU had the time. And the plan. And the man, at each end of that play to make that play. As ASU coach Todd Graham said: "Great players make great plays . . . but it wasn't just that one play. These guys believed in one another every single play."

And a USC team, jumping into the Wildcat on one key third down play and having Justin Davis stuffed was just one example of trying to trick 'em when all you needed to do was get Buck up in there quickly and off to the races. But when USC absolutely had to get Buck going, it couldn't.

And when the Trojans absolutely had to make a stop against a team that couldn't run it -- the mirror image of that Boston College team that beat USC when it couldn't pass it, they could not. ASU threw for an incredible 510 yards on just 27 completions (in 46 tries). That's an average of 18.9 yard a completion to USC's miniscule 9.8 per on 28 completions (in 45 throws) as Cody kept his interception-free streak going.

USC managed to run 95 plays but for 493 yards while ASU got their 541 total on just 68 plays. That was thanks to a USC defense that had not given up a single passing touchdown all season giving up five of them on this one horrific night. Four came from downtown -- 21 yards out, 73, 77 and the killer from 46 yards away.

That's a meltdown of epic proportions by a team and maybe more so, a coaching staff not ready to win in prime time. Which makes it tough because next week the Trojans face another professional head coach and staff that seems to be able to make do with less in Arizona's Rich Rodriguez.

This is not going to be easy. But then no one said it would be. Coaching football at USC is a very big challenge. It's not for everyone. Almost not for anyone.

And now a Trojans season that started with such promise is exactly where last season's was at 3-2 with an embarrassing loss to ASU when the coaching turnaround happened for the Arizona game. Guess we'll see.

Sark says this is where they are: ". . . with one loss in conference play. It leaves us with a stinging, with a sick feeling in our gut, It leaves us a chance to show who we are and our mettle and our resiliency. We have a tough game coming up at 7:30 at Arizona. We need to get ourselves mentally, physically and emotionally ready to play and I am confident we will do it."

But they'll be doing so coming off the least confidence-inspiring effort by a Trojans team since the Sun Bowl. Hope? Maybe. Confidence? No way.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.

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