Trojans back on their horse, head to Palouse

They've lost two games at the buzzer they shouldn't have and instead of enjoying 1st place in the Pac-12 South with a chance to clinch it the next couple of weeks, the 5-3 Trojans are just hoping for help as they play Washington State and Cal the next two weeks.

"Lots of moving parts," Steve Sarkisian said Tuesday of his 5-3 Trojans that he believes "should be a 7-1 football team and undefeated in conference play." Sark wasn't kidding as a USC team that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory a second time in the Pac-12 -- this time at Utah -- attempted to figure out the best way for the offensive line to replace left tackle Chad Wheeler, out for the season with a torn ACL, with 275-pound freshman Toa Lobendahn.

And then he watched freshman Damien Mama, Lobendahn's replacement, go down in a blocking drill, aggravating his knee. Which gave the spot to redshirt freshman Khaliel Rodgers, still rehabbing his MCL sprain and about 90 percent of the way back.

All three said they'd be ready to go Saturday at Pullman against Washington State's pass-happy Cougars (2-6, 1-4 in the Pac-12). The good news is the game is on the Pac-12 Networks with a 1:30 p.m. kickoff on a day when the high will be in the mid-40s with a 50 percent chance of rain.

As to this week, Sark said he'd keep working to get himself up to speed coaching this team that should have been in a position to clinch the Pac-12 South with wins over WSU and Cal at home the next two weeks. And making its reservations for San Jose the first week of December.

"The beauty of the game of football is you get to play the next week," Sark said as he admitted failing to figure out how to put the literally last-second Utah loss behind him. This team has, Sark said.

"I continue to be impressed about this team's ability . . . " both to bounce back from disappointment and its ability -- period, Sark said. And if Tuesday's practice is any hint, they have. It was crisp, upbeat and competitive despite the injury issues.

Asked to consider a "two-last-second-losses" comparison of the first years of his tenure with that of the two permanent coaches before him -- Pete Carroll and Lane Kiffin -- who each suffered similar devastating end-game turnarounds, Sark answered simply: "I only know about us."

What he knows, Sark said, is that "in our hearts I feel we should have won both of those games." Except for this: "I haven't done a good enough job for us to win those games."

No arguing that. As for the Carrol/Kiffin comparisons and holding your fire until we see which side of the coaching continuum Sark falls on, it's probably best Sark didn't go there. Not much doubt right now which way that needle is pointing.

And Sark knows it. "We're good enough to win . . . " any game on the schedule, past or future. But there is this one thing the coach and his players need, he said.<.p>

There's "the need for me as a head coach, as much as I need to be consistent, I need to be creative . . . " providing one of those "uh oh" moments.

"Creative" and "aggressive" are watchwords to watch out for here. That's what gets you the third-and-2 and fourth-and-1 plays that go nowhere and only make things worse because the coach is trying too hard to fool somebody and only fools himself.

Which gets us to the play that could have won the game when USC hustled out late in the game in the hurryup jumbo formation with Cody Kessler under center and he ends up flipping the ball to a covered fullback Jahleel Pinner, who has caught exactly one pass for three yards this season. A complete disaster from beginning to end. But it gets worse.

Utah, as is their style, called out a signal right before Cody got under the center and Max Tuerk snapped the ball on the hurryup play before Cody's hands were in place. "They made a call," Cody said, "and I wasn't there yet when Max thought it was my call and snapped the ball."

So all Cody could do was try to get control of the ball and short-arm it toward Pinner to avoid a fumble. Actually a great play by him although if you read either media or fan sites after the game, it was proof of how limited USC's quarterback is.

But this wasn't on Cody. This was another "creative" playcall that had USC 0-for-2 in the hurryup game deep in Utah territory (also in the second quarter) causing USC to come up scoreless on two drives in a game the Trojans would lose by three points.

Now the more Sark talked about being "creative," the more he said he's got to figure out "how to push the right buttons" to get this team to be able to play 60 minutes and finish out games they clearly should have won. It's all he's been thinking about since Saturday night, Sark said.

"We obviously found a way not to win those two games," Sark said of the two Pac-12 losses at the buzzer. And here's where we call on that famous Lone Ranger joke that has Tonto responding to the pair being trapped by a bunch of Apaches and the Lone Ranger asks him "What do we do now, Tonto?" and Tonto responds with "What do you mean 'We,' Kemo Sabe."

We indeed. Unfortunately that's one of the symptoms of the disease that killed Kiffin here: giving in to the temptation to overcoach -- or overthink -- while at the same time underpreparing players to actually make the plays you're asking them to make. That's a killer combo.

Just calling the hurryup play after the earlier failure is a problem. Add into it the place it comes in the game. Make the first, win the game. Most important play thus far. And then there's the snap under center for the long-armed Tuerk. Now you've added a second degree of difficulty to an already pressure-packed play.

Then throw it to seldom-targeted Pinner and that's the trifecta of additional difficulties when all you have to do -- as a run-first team -- is run the ball twice and at worst, run the clock and force Utah to use its final timeout. Again, since you knew you weren't kicking the field goal, it really should have been a no-brainer that involved no need for a coach to be "creative."

The Pac-12's leading rusher, Buck Allen, said of course, in that situation, "I want the ball in my hands." But it was not to be. "Coach Sark calls the play," he said, "and we went with it."

Should he have -- or could Buck have spoken up and said "I want the ball." Yes, he said, "I could ask for it . . . but I don't question Sark's playcall."

Nor does Sark. Which may be the real problem here.

Making the most of it



Freshman guard Mama was sitting in the offensive line meeting before practice Tuesday when he was told by his coach, Tim Drevno, that he'd be replacing Lobendahn at left guard as Lobendahn moves over to replaced the injured Wheeler. And how that would mean, with Viane Talamaivao, three true freshmen possibly starting for a USC offensive line that over the years rarely has even one.

"We were talking about that this morning," said Mama, who played down his knee injury. "Just a tweak, an aggravation . . . I'll be fine."

He wouldn't miss the trio together for anything, he said. "That'll be fun." And "No," he couldn't have imagined it, the three freshmen in there together ever. "This is a good transition for us."

But Damien isn't going all-in on following Toa's lead here, as "great" as he says the every-game starter has proved himself. "We follow Max," he said of Tuerk. "He's a junior. We take our leadership from him."

Footnoted



Completely different feel on the injury front today compared to last week . . . Wheeler out for the season with an ACL tear and J.R. Tavai, out for at least a couple of weeks with a knee sprain, were not at practice . . . Antwaun Woods missed practice and we were told later he was sick . . . Gerald Bowman and George Farmer were back and full-go after not making the trip Saturday . . . Soma Vainuku practiced but was "extremely limited" according to Sark . . . Leonard Williams was here but without his helmet and shoulder pads and just observing as he rests his shoulder . . . Ajene Harris still a bit limited . . . Placekicker Andre Heidari attempted three FGs from beyond 50 yards, hitting one, and looks like he's ready to go after not being called on at the end at Utah for a 44-yarder into the wind.

For a wrapup of Tuesday morning's practice, check out TUESDAY WSU WEEK GHOST NOTES.

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


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