SAN DIEGO -- First they exhaled.
Then they hugged, and giggled and danced and did all the things a cool program with a tradition Steve Sarkisian described as unmatched in all of college football would probably never do for a three-point win in a game where they were favored by seven.
Well that may be. But it didn't keep USC's Trojans from reacting like they'd just won the Rose Bowl after surviving another Hail Mary and a hang-tough Nebraska team and their own mistakes for a 45-42 Holiday Bowl victory Saturday night at Qualcomm Stadium.
As for Sark, that look on his face when they awarded him the bowl trophy was that of the guy standing there with the noose around his neck when the trapdoor on the gallows didn't open. Or maybe the guy who realized the rope hauling the guillotine blade up had just snapped.
Blowing most of a 45-27 lead in a scoreless final quarter -- after USC had scored 21 in the third -- well, anything more would not have been acceptable. Some Trojan fans in the crowd of 55,789 were already booing late-game three-and-outs, unsuccessful runs and choosing to punt.
A loss here would have been indescribably difficult for the first-year USC coach to overcome. And the first-year foundation Sark referenced would have looked like it was built on sand.
An 8-5 finish for a team with Leonard Williams and Cody Kessler and ,b>Buck Allen and Nelson Agholor and Adoree Jackson would have not been "a total success," as Sark described this season after the game. It would have been completely unacceptable.
Which is why the celebration was completely unbridled. "Joy," Buck called the look on his teammates' faces. "It's been fun, Bro," Leonard said in a postgame hug of Nelson.
What did Offensive MVP Kessler say after being given the trophy, he was asked. "I have no idea," he said as he headed over to conduct the Trojan band following in the footsteps of freshman Jackson.
How was it, Jackson was asked. "Exciting," he said. He'd seen Reggie Bush do this when he was a little kid and thought it looked like fun. Although not as much fun as his two touchdown runs.
"The pass play," Adoree answered was the more exciting. The Holiday Bowl record 98-yard kickoff return just happened.
"But we worked on that pass play," Adoree said of the 71-yard TD catch and run that had him hustle into the game on first down at tailback before the Huskers realized he was in there.
And before the linebacker who had to check him took notice and after the safety who came over took the wrong angle on his cutback, Adoree was gone. And he knew it right away.
"I could see the whole field," he said, showing how he knew his cut would catch the safety leaning the wrong way.
But this game was almost lost on defense as late-game losses to Arizona State and Utah had been. And then Leon McQuay jumped in to make his second straight play for the final stop on a surprise fly sweep by De'Mornay Pierson-El as time began to run out for the Huskers.
But the play that will be remembered at the very end was the Hail Mary from 56 yards out that had both Juju Smith and Agholor in on defense with Nelson getting the final volleyball spike out of the end zone to end the game.
"Nelson made a heck of a play to go attack the football," Sark said. "You can only get burned so many times. I guess, you know." We do. And we agree with Sark that "this team has been through a lot," Sark said. "We always try to make it exciting." That's one way to look at it.
Or there's the way Kessler was looking at it -- after the game and after announcing he'd be returning next season and after his Offensive MVP award for his 321 yards passing on 23 of 39 with three TD's, to give him 39 for the year, tying Matt Barkley's single season USC mark.
"That is completely irrelevant to me," he said. "I'm not just saying that, I really do believe it. Win or loss, that's the most important thing for me, winning games for these guys."
Leonard, the bowl defensive MVP, probably won't be one of those guys after what he told Nelson, who wasn't letting on to the Nebraska players who were asking, what he was going to do. He had seven catches for 90 yards with a 17-yard TD catch.
A number of the plays USC made were worth saluting, like Buck's 44-yard TD dash to give USC a 14-point cushion, 38-24, in the third quarter. Or freshman tight end Bryce Dixon's 20-yard seam route to give USC a 45-27 lead with 2:03 left in the third.
But there were plenty that weren't. The 67 yards on eight first-quarter penalties were beyond belief as was the Big 12 crew from Nebraska's neighborhood apparent unwillingness to call holding on the hands-on Huskers, not even once.
As was allowing the 65-yard TD pass to Jordan Westerkamp right before the end of the third on a badly thrown ball that had all three USC defenders fall down. Or the first blocked punt allowed. Or the near miss that got punter Kris Albarado injured in a field-position game that amazingly saw him average 40.3 yards on seven punts. Or the first blocked punt of the season.
Then there were the multiple unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. And the flip-a-coin success of the run game that sometimes was there and sometimes not there at all.
And as squishy as the defense was at times, for most of the game All-Americn tailback Ameer Abdullah was held in check, although Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong finished with a career-high 381 yards passing as Nebraska outgained USC 525 yards to 515 running 94 plays to the Trojans' 73.
But nothing could dampen Sark's enthusiasm. "Our future, and I'll say it again, is ridiculously bright . . . we're going to compete for championships . . . that's why you come to USC. Get ready for 2015."
After escaping 2014 by the hairs on their chinny-chin-chins, looking ahead to 2015 surely was more fun than trying to figure out how close they came to not making it out of 2014.
And that's despite all the great plays. By great players. Against a Nebraska team that hadn't beaten a single good team all season.
So that made it feel so good not to lose. And to hear Nebraska interim coach send USC out with these words: "They were everything we thought they would be, physical and skilled," Barney Cotton said, "a big-play offense. And a physical defense."
And with a 9-4 record. Could have been better. Should have been better. But could have easily been worse. That it wasn't, well, that's why there were smiles all around.You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.