SANTA CLARA -- The special sweat shirts had one word on them: "FINISH."
Maybe they should have said "START." Or "KEEP ON" but by the time the Pac-12 Championship game was over, USC, finishing 8-5 in the regular season. neither started nor finished.
In the end, the Trojans were unable to finish. They were finished off 41-22 by a Stanford team that absolutely knows how to finish football games.
USC was finished off by an 11-2 Stanford team far better prepared, far better disciplined, far more ready to play the kind of game USC says it wants to play some day -- a team far stronger, far faster.
And far more trusting of one another to make the plays that needed to be made. Far more physical. Far more dynamic. Far less mistake-prone.
And that's just for starters. A team far more capable of high-IQ football, the kind that enabled both tailback Christian McCaffrey and quarterback Kevin Hogan to each throw for a touchdown, run for a touchdown and catch a pass for a touchdown.
And while you can find one player in the entire nation in each of the last two years to do that, to have two teammates do it in the same game, the Pac-12 Championship Game, was so special that all the USC players could do was talk about how good those guys were. And how much better they were than the first time these teams met.
"I have so much respect for that dude, Christian McCaffrey," JuJu Smith Schuster said. "I pray he wins the Heisman. I don't hate on people.
But if USC fans wanted to hate on someone for making sure the Cinderella Trojans did not end up in the Rose Bowl, it was McCaffrey, whose 461 all-purpose yards (207 rushing, 11 passing, 105 receiving and 149 on returns) set Stanford and Pac-12 Championship Game records.
Better for them to talk about McCaffrey than their own USC team that thought it was going to come out all fired-up after the surprise appearance in the Trojans' locker room before the game by the banished Reggie Bush, here for his honor as Pac-12 All-Century running back and return man.
Those were the days, my friend, when USC had the players everyone wanted to talk about. So much so that it's Reggie's No. 5 that McCaffrey wears in his honor.
The next generation of West Coast fans will still be wearing No. 5 but it will be for McCaffrey, whom USC could not stop, could not tackle or could not even locate on a 67-yard reception on a Hogan scramble that brought the Cardinal back from a shocking 16-13 third-quarter deficit. What was shocking about that was it came after Stanford had totally dominated the first half, outgaining USC 209 yards to 80.
But in a 171-yard third quarter unlike anything it had shown in the first half, USC came out to put up two quick touchdowns (a 1-yard play-action pass to Jahleel Pinner and a brilliant 27-yard run by Ronald Jones for the lead.
But just as quickly as it came, it went. Stanford would go on to outscore USC 28-6 in the final 18:11. The only "FINISH" on this field was the one the Cardinals managed. Slogans go only so far. About as far as all that talk after last week's UCLA win.
You have to show up and play. USC didn't for the first 30 minutes, except for a couple of red zone mini-stands. And then not for those final 18 minutes. Add the two together and that's 48 minutes for Stanford, 12 for USC.
And Clay Helton, after one game as head coach, can be happy he's got five years on his contract to get it right. Because it may take that long with a team that breaks down so easily, from pass blocking, to run-stopping, from tackling to coverage, from having the mental discipline not to give in and give up penalty yards to busting coverage and blocking assignments.
USC did it all here. "I told the young kids I want them to remember this feeling," Helton said as if they'll be able to "get this bad taste out of their mouths," which is why Helton, who is now 5-3 at USC this season (6-3 overall), says he can't wait to get to play the bowl game.
With the kind of up-and-down team he has, maybe the next game the Trojans will show up ready to play -- and maybe even finish. The next chance, the consensus seems to be, will be against Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl Dec. 30 or San Diego State in Las Vegas Dec. 19.
Zach Banner, who says he'll know in another week whether he'll be coming back, reacted emotionally to the loss. He "was proud of our guys," he said, except when he wasn't. The comeback was great. The failure to fire, the inability to get stops and the ball for the offense, and the failure to score more than three points on three possessions the first half "must get fixed," he said.
He thinks they can. "We care now," he said. That wasn't always the case.
Stanford cared. "Defensively, we knew we were going to have to make a game-breaking play," Stanford coach David Shaw said. And that's exactly what they did, with reportedly injured linebacker Blake Martinez getting to Cody Kessler's blind side to strip the ball for a 34-yard scoop and score by Solomon Thomas as USC was moving out of its own territory for what could have been a go-ahead score, trailing 27-22.
"We didn't make our plays," Cody said after seeing JuJu breaking clear deep middle on that play. "I'm proud of our guys. We came back even if the scoreboard won't show it."
And of Martinez, "I expected him to be picked up," Cody said. But he wasn't. Just the way it happened all night. One team made the big play. The other team couldn't make the little ones.
And the team that thought it was ready to play, and able to finish, could do neither. Football is hard. Habits are hard to break. USC has a long way to go.
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