TUCSON -- Just keep making plays and hope the other guy misses. That's what it's coming down to for this USC team, "first in the Pac-12 South," a joyous Steve Sarkisian screamed out after a win that he clearly realized was as important as any in his coachng career.
And of immeasurable impact on this USC team. It resurrected a season, kept it alive. It really doesn't matter how they won this one, on a missed field goal by a kicker who had been cleverly iced twice by Sark at the end of each half.
It just mattered what the numbers said on the scoreboard: USC 28, Arizona 26. Just as last week, nothing else mattered after that Hail Mary bullet that beat the Trojans. But didn't finish them off. And now they're back -- 3-1 in the Pac-12 South. Arizona, unbeaten and No. 10 in the nation coming into this sold-out stadium with 56,754 crazy fans staying to the very end, drops to 2-1 in the league. And USC has the tiebreaker with the Wildcats.
But this was more than about second-guessing the conservatism of the USC coaches playing with a lead or the Pac-12 officials playing with the rules, or good judgment in nailing USC for 13 penalties and 103 yards to Arizona's four for 35. No holding on Leonard Williams? Please.
But it was about Leonard (eight tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble) and Buck Allen (a career-high 205 yards and three TDs (from 34, 48 and 1 yards) stepping up and making the kinds of plays USC needs them to make.
"You have to give USC credit," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said, "they are a talented group of guys."
But more than talented, determined not to let what happened last week happen again -- no matter what. No matter how the calls -- their own and the officials -- went. They just kept playing -- and making plays. "That's the effort it takes," Leonard said.
It took luck -- and a lot of grit. The stuff on the two-point extra point that would have tied it with Leonard leading the way was big. But then the loss of the onside kick could have been bigger. Give Sark credit. He times those timeout icing calls so they get in just before the ball is snapped but too late to keep the first kick from going up."
"It's hard to make two in a row," Sark said, and he was correct about that in this game. Both first kicks by Casey Skowron were perfect. The second kick, one blocked by Claude Pelon, the second wide right under pressure, were both no good.
If last week's end-game scenario misfired, this one, despite all the missteps, worked out somehow. Worked out on a night when the Wildcats threw it 72 times, completing 43 for 395 of their 472 yards of offense. But once again, with help from injuries -- one before the game and one during it -- USC shut down the top run game in the Pac-12 as the Wildcats gained just 86 yards against a much more sound, if shaky at the end, defense.
Although not everybody was pleased. Su'a Cravens, looking sharp with his two-year Mohawk haircut shaved off after losing last week and his mother collecting on their agreement, said he wasn't happy "that they had a chance at the end. We should have been taking a knee," not holding on for dear life against that final field goal attempt.
But both Lockett and Plattenburg, who haven't seen all that much duty, were part of the mix now. "I wasn't nervous," Plattenburg said. "I was just trying to stay consistent."
That's what Su'a kept telling the young guys around him as the 5-11 Lockett was singled up time and again on the top Arizona wide receiver, 6-3 Cayleb Jones. Somehow, he and USC survived.
They even survived Cody Kessler's first interception in 190 pass attempts this year and 195 going back to 2013. But this game belonged to Buck. Never more than on the run from the USC 10 that saw him make guys miss on four different levels as he twisted and turned, spun and pushed the ball 32 yards out from the shadow of the USC goal line with USC leading 28-20 and 8:20 left.
"Sark challenged me two weeks ago to make people miss," Buck said. "I thank him for that. I'm a guy who loves challenges."
"When Buck runs like that, there's no better player in the nation," Cravens said.
And for Buck, who loves challenges, he's in exactly the right place because if the first six games are any indication, every time out is going to be a challenge for this USC team. And the only chance they have is to keep making the kinds of plays Buck and Leonard and Cody (20 for 30 for 185 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT) and Nelson (seven catches for 81 yards, 1 TD) and Hayes Pullard (nine tackles) and Gerald Bowman (also nine tackles) made here.<.p>
"I never thought it was over," Leonard said after his big two-point-denying extra point play. "Our motto is to keep fighting on." And the way this season is going, they'll have no choice.
"We need more people making more plays," Sark said. "Tonight wasn't enough."
Or just barely. "It changes our mindset," Juju Smith said. And in some ways, makes up for last week. "Everybody gave their all," JuJu said, "especially our young guys and I can say that even though I'm a freshman myself."
"This was a big win," Su'a said. And of the last play, "I wasn't nervous at all, just a little frustrated . . . But we're in first place and there's no better place to be."
And did it with Pelon's blocked field goal at the half, as he made his playmaker's play from the defensive line.
And did it with just 50 recruited scholarship players suited up, the fewest all year.
But if there are key words here, it's those: "they did it."
Last week, they didn't. For the second time in an outrageously unpredictable season, USC beat a Top 10 team on the road and in the league. That's not easy to do. Especially when the team still has yet to find its personality.
Although maybe Agholor put his finger on what it should be. "We came out flat against Boston College and didn't play all the way against Arizona State. What we have to do is come out fired-up every game and play to the finish."
It's a formula USC's players -- and coaches -- have to get together on. But as of Game 6, they're a bit closer to finding that formula.
And they're one missed kick away from being 3-3. And nowhere near the lead in the Pac-12 South.
The Trojans will take it, however they can right now, and get out of Dodge with a win and a chance going forward.You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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