USC-Arizona in the desert: This game matters

USC-Arizona in the desert tonight in a game that matters, as it often has even though the Trojans have won five of the last six in Tucson. And won them by making plays -- as they'll have to do in this one.

John Wayne loved to come to Old Tucson, the former Trojan footballer's favorite film location we're told in his recent biography.

No question this desert outpost should have a place in Trojans' hearts. Pete Carroll's record run started here. Lane Kiffin's started to end here.

And Steve Sarkisian? Tonight (7:30, ESPN2) against Arizona's high-flying, unbeaten and 10th-ranked Wildcats we'll know a great deal more.

You say it's just one game. It is. But the difference in a 4-2 team -- one that should be 6-0 if they win this one -- that's 3-1 in the Pac-12 and tied for the lead in the South with maybe the only win by anyone in the league all year at Stanford is one thing.

But a 3-3 team that's 2-2 and in the mddle of the pack in the South is a whole other thing just as would be USC losses to both Arizona schools the same season. That's something that happens once every decade-and-a-half, which is when it happened last -- in 1999 before Pete's arrival.

With wins in five of the last six games in Tucson, USC should hardly come in all worried about the Trojans' ability to survive here. Kiffin even got it right once out of his two visits when an unranked USC team in his first season came in and just physically punished Arizona with a run game that didn't allow the 18th-ranked Wildcats much chance to have the ball in a 24-21 win not that close.

But then Lane also had the misfortune two years later, and two years ago, to blame that 39-36 loss that saw Marqise Lee set an all-time Pac-12 pass-catching mark with 345 yards receiving as the 10th-ranked Trojans lost a game they led by 15 -- 28-13 -- in the third quarter only to give up 26 straight points to RichRod's guys.

And to make things worse, Kiffin pinned it all on a failed play he'd drawn up on the sidelines -- a bomb from Matt Barkley to Robert Woods that would have put USC up by 22 points -- as the reason why. That USC team opened 6-1 and fought its way into the Top 10 then dropped like a rock, losing five of its final six and setting the stage for Kiffin's demise -- also in the desert -- five games into the 2013 season.

But the game I'll always remember is the first USC game I saw after coming to California -- in 2001. In Tucson. And Pete's guys were struggling. And then they came alive, with Kris Richard's 58-yard interception the game winner with 1:50 left. That started a season-saving turnaround for Carroll that saw the Trojans win three more in a row to get bowl-eligible and get it going.

Sure, it was just one game. But the joy you could feel afterwards, with the team and the band down in the corner of Arizona Stadium. made it seem like they knew what they'd started that evening. To this day, I can't recall many that seemed to matter more.

That's the way it is with football. Games that you have a chance to win, or should win, you'd better win. You don't get another shot.

When you've already blown a couple of games where you've either been outprepared, outmotivated, outcoached or outmaneuvered at the end when it mattered most, you have no margin for error. Not with a 10-win team coming back with more talent than each team you lost to.

Not when the rest of the season probably depends on it.

Not in a league now that hits you with one professional head coach and coaching staff every week, a league where there are almost no gimmes.

Not when you have a team that showed last year it knew how to turn things around when its coach stopped being allowed to get in the way.

Does that scenario still exist for a 3-2 USC team between the Arizona games that did in the previous head coach?

Well, there were some encouraging words this week. Embattled defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said he was "looking for guys to make plays." And returned to that theme -- and those words -- players "making plays" -- a number of times that sounded like the good old Pete days.

It's about players making plays, and it's about the ball, and about coaches freeing players up to do just that while doing nothing to make it harder for them to make those plays. It's not about the coaches, only it is -- when they get in the way. As they have a couple of times already.

This is a young, talented, unfinished, up and down team without a personality, an identity or a sense of exactly how it wins football games. That's where coaches come in even if it's the players' team, as they learned last season. They have to make the plays. Coaches have to let them.

"It's coming," outside linebacker Scott Felix said of his elevated performance against Arizona State. "I'm more focused, getting back to the basics, not so excited the way I was the first part of the season when I was playing with wide eyes."

That's a theme that had better play out tonight.

"We gotta' make plays," corner Kevon Seymour said after not making a big one on a failed dive for the ball in the final three minutes that gave up a 73-yard TD pass and allowed the Sun Devils a way to win at the end.

"It'll come," wide receiver George Farmer said of an offense that's been, to play-caller Sark's disappointment, not very explosive this season, "getting yards in increments" when it needs to get them "in chunks," Sark said.

Some of that is Sark's scheme and the rest of it is players making plays.

Just don't let the scheme get in the way of the players. That's the genius of coaching. Make it simple. They're young. But plenty good enough, no matter what the critics say, if they play. If they're not playing not to lose.

But if they can't figure out how to get it going on first and second downs, can't figure out how to throw it down the field, can't run it when they absolutely must, can't stop offenses when they know what's coming, there aren't enough plays -- or players -- the rest of the game to get it done.

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