Trojans can't finish, are they finished?

With their third loss and second literally at the buzzer, USC's players and coaches have to figure out why they can't finish games they have almost won only to have them flip around on them. Or is it too late for it to matter now?

SALT LAKE CITY -- Going, going, gone. Just like that. Again.

They still had a chance coming into the Utah game despite two horrific losses. Heck, they still had the game and the Pac-12 South lead and the ball and a 21-17 lead over the Utes as they finished up an 11-play, 62-yard drive that would finish up with just 2:08 left.

It was great stuff. If only USC had been the finisher not, once again, the finishee. But needing two yards in two plays for a first down, USC came up short. On the field. And more importantly, on the sidelines.

Not as bad as the Arizona State loss, Su'a Cravens said. "We've had some bad losses. But this wasn't the worst."

Not sure if that's the good news or the bad news as a shellshocked band of Trojans tried to find their way out of Rice-Eccles Stadium after dropping to 5-3 (4-2 in the Pac-12 South). Good news for sure is the way the players' parents and USC coaches didn't run into one another after this one. That could have gotten ugly.

Their kids did not deserve to lose this one -- not again. But they did. Sure, Steve Sarkisian said, "We didn't get it done, it starts with myself . . . especially at the most critical moments." Again.

"We have to learn to finish," Su'a Cravens said, as did Adoree Jackson and Leonard Williams and Hayes Pullard and Cody Kessler.

Antwaun Woods, with tear-stained eyes, couldn't make himself say anything. "I don't want to talk about it, sorry," is all he could say. "It's really tough on them," Kessler said. "I look at Hayes and Randall and the other seniors and how upset they were, but it's tough on everybody.

"We can either come together or crumble," he said after this team once again . . . crumbled.

But he wasn't about to second-guess the exotic, one-of-a-kind, one might even say grab-bag play calls on third and 2 and fourrth and 2. "Coach Sark calls the plays. We trust him."

But it was the Utah players, 3-1 in the Pac-12 South now, who left trusting their coaches. "I'm speechless," Devontae Booker said after the last drive to win.

Cody wasn't. "They played them well," Kessler said of the difficult quick throw into the flat that was well-defended as the ball slipped out of Cody's hands. Then there was the reverse pitch to Nelson Agholor that had him stepping out of bounds short of the first down.

"Coach Sark called the plays, we gotta' execute," Cody said. Like Utah on that last drive. But only one team executed when it had to. Which is why only one team walked away a winner. And just as in the Arizona State game, it was the team that executed plays it knew it would.

Talk to the USC players and they knew the Utes would, as well. At least they knew what they were going to do. And worked against them. But weren't in place to make the plays they needed to make. Although on that game-winning TD, Utah executed the famous Notre Dame pick play but no call here. But of course no call.

Not that USC didn't make plenty of plays. Kessler opened with 11 of 12 passing the first quarter for 157 yards although Utah had as many points out of that as USC did. And was that bad luck, bad execution or bad playcalling?

How about all of the above. USC tried a too-cute-by-half option swing route that when the Utah defender comes the way he did, the route Darreus Rogers was running bows out. "An option run-pass play," Sark called it, a fine line where it could be a lateral or maybe not.

Turns out it was as Rogers got discombobulated trying to locate the defender and the blocker and the ball. And it bounced off him upfield. No whistle. But the officials were telling Agholor to stop blocking, "the play is over," Kessler said. Only it wasn't. And a scoop and score had Utah up 7-0 just 33 seconds into this game.

Of course, as Sark pointed out, when USC had its own scoop and score after Adoree's miraculous strip at the goal line the whistle did blow -- incorrectly -- and the play was stopped. No scoop and score for you, USC, the continually befuddled Pac-12 crew said.

But again, in a rule meant for politics but one that applies to football, "if it ain't close, they can't cheat." This one should not have been that close. The way Kessler was picking the Utes apart passing, if USC avoids the giveaway TD and keeps throwing the ball, it never looks back here.

So what changed, Cody? You throw for 157 yards the first quarter, 107 more the rest of the way. "We started to try to establish the run," Kessler said. "And they're a good run defense team."

So a little of that good old Boston College gameplan crept in. Not that USC wasn't "aggressive," as Sark said, going for it on fourth and 1 at the Utah 27 -- again. And they ran the hurryup offense with an extra O-lineman and the snap from long-armed Max Tuerk to Cody was lost. Not the first time that's happened.

USC went away from its bread-and-butter, tried something it hadn't run and failed. As it would at the other 27 later on.

But it wasn't lost by these players. They made enough plays. It's hard to run plays under the heaviest of pressure you're only hoping you can make. Utah wasn't hoping, the way Arizona State wasn't hoping.

They were playing. Going to their "A" game. And executing. No "grab-baggery" for them. No sticking in their thumb and hoping to pull out a plumb.

The USC defense played well enough to win, holding Utah to 17 points -- the bouncing ball TD return wasn't on them -- and 331 yards of offense. Adoree Jackson surely didn't deserve to lose. That 100-yard kickoff TD was just a signal of what kind of special talent this freshman is.

Not to mention his accomplice on that play, Juju Smith. "I though he was going to tell me to stay there," Adoree said after catching the ball seven yards deep in the end zone.

"But he didn't. Then he signalled we'd better get out of there," and so they did. These kids did not deserve to lose this game. They deserved better. But they didn't get better.

"We had a couple of scenarios that didn't go our way tonight on fourth down," Sark said. as if "scenarios" come or go your way by some sort of magical whim of the gods. "We just have to continue to coach and get better at the critical moments."

Here's a suggestion. Stop trying to coach the way you're coaching, trust your players to do what they do, figure out what it is they do and get out of their way so they can do it. It's not that hard.

Teams win games when players are freed up to make plays. And their coaches aren't getting in their way. USC should try it some time. We're not saying it's easy to do. Not everyone is cut out to coach at USC successfully.

But a good place to start in our mind has always been the rule from Hippocrates on for physicians: "First do no harm."

Get them ready to play and get out of the way. No one wants to see what's at the end of your playsheet. No one cares whether you can "establish the run" if you're completing 11 of your first 12 passes. This isn't about you, it's about USC football -- and USC football players.

They deserve better than they're getting here.

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


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