Cody Kessler looked like he might cry as he walked off the field. Zach Banner had tears streaming down his cheeks. Saturday night’s 41-22 Pac-12 Championship loss to Stanford hit USC’s players hard.
Their emotions had betrayed them.
Against rival UCLA a week before, the Trojans remained calm and steady throughout the week and early in the game, allowing the emotion of the Crosstown Showdown to build to a crescendo in the fourth quarter when the offensive line was chastising the UCLA defense physically and verbally.
Facing off against Stanford for the second time, USC wasn’t able to contain their passion. Clay Helton had been named the permanent head coach earlier in the week. Reggie Bush, many of the players’ Trojan idol growing up, had been in the locker room before the game. The Pac-12 All-Century Team with several Trojan greats had been honored on the field before the game. The Rose Bowl was on the line.
"We let the game get bigger than our play on the field,” running back Justin Davis said. “Even though we could get fired up, we still had to play controlled, solid football. We missed some assignments because we were just too hyped up for the game.”
Davis called it the toughest loss he’s ever endured. USC had rode the roller coaster of emotions going from nearly being out of the game before halftime to rallying for a lead in the third quarter and watching it all slip away down the stretch as the Trojans couldn’t find an answer for Stanford Heisman candidate Christian McCaffrey.
But even more than the momentum swings of the game and the impact of losing to an in-state rival for the second time this season, it was a heartbreaker for the Trojans because everything that came before the game. While the Cardinal had no other worries and said “all that matters is what happens on our field,” the Trojans were carrying the weight of every off-the-field goblin and ghoul that has marred their time at USC. They were trying to make a statement despite all the trials and tribulations they had endured in the recent past.
"This group of guys we’ve been battling through so much adversity just to come up short is disappointing,” Davis said. “I guess it’s just a matter of we were right there. The Rose Bowl was right there. We came so close. We just fell that short of the goal of us wanting to go to the Rose Bowl. I think a lot of people are taking it hard right now.”
Linebacker Anthony Sarao has been an integral part of the defense starting all but one game the last two and a half years. Fellow redshirt senior Kessler has been the face and the front of the program since taking over the starting quarterback role. Both saw a grand opportunity to close their career with a first trip to the ‘granddaddy of them all.’
“It just hurts man, especially when you have the opportunity in front of you,” Sarao said. “All the stuff we’ve been through and how tight we still are as a team. It just hurts man.”
“Our heart was there. Our effort was there. It’s just we didn’t play well enough.”
The Trojans spent so much energy getting back in the game during the third quarter with backups rushing on the field to congratulate players, walk-ons cheering and dancing on the benches and the players on the field jumping on each other's back and throwing high-fives or bicep bumps after every play.
By the time the fourth quarter came around and the momentum had shifted on Blake Martinez’s sack/forced fumble of Kessler that was scooped up and ran back by Solomon Thomas, USC was running out of gas. Kessler got the Trojans back within a score on his 12-yard touchdown run, but when Stanford went on a 10-play, 75-yard drive that lasted nearly six minutes, the wind was gone from the Trojans’ sail.
“Disappointing,” linebacker Scott Felix said. “It’s just frustrating because we were right there in the game and we could have really capitalized on it, but we just made mistakes that Stanford capitalized on.”
Kessler took it a step further and said the Trojans should have won, but they didn’t make the plays necessary.
“The second half the guys came out and put everything they had and played as hard as they could, but we came up a little short,” Kessler said. “I’m so proud of these guys and even making it here.
“Everything they’ve been through and to come back and to fight that hard and really give Stanford a fight. Maybe the scoreboard doesn’t say so, but hopefully our guys earned a lot of respect tonight from the Pac-12.”
The Trojans walked off the field with their heads hung and their hearts deflated while Stanford coach David Shaw said after the game that McCaffrey was “still walking on his toes” and “could still play another quarter if we had to.” USC had expended all its energy and emotion before and during the game.
Stanford still had plenty left to celebrate.