SAN DIEGO -- A perfect ending really -- for a game, a season, a career.
Seven seconds left. Ball at midfield. Fourth and 10. USC down 23-21 and with one final shot. The obvious call? "Hail Mary, Save the Game" was Clay Helton's choice. It's time for the Trojans to get one of these.
Sounds right. This USC team knows exactly how that works. They saw one up close and personal a year ago in a crushing loss to Arizona State.
And so, for the last pass in his college career, Cody Kessler drops deep, although not as deep as you would have thought for that deep of a throw. And he cocks quickly, turns left and fires it off to Darreus Rogers, the erstwhile hero when he stayed alive for the go-ahead touchdown minutes earlier.
The ball is short and out of bounds. The clock says three seconds left but there's no time left for the Trojans. Not that it might have mattered.
But as Cody takes the blame for waving off the Hail Mary and going with the quick out, he notes that Darreus came up to him after the play and apologized for not knowing the down -- or the distance.
So there you have it. USC had one shot. Throw it into the end zone and hope lightning strikes. At least that way you'd have a chance.
But Cody said no to the Hail Mary and Darreus on the out didn't have his head in the game at the most critical of times to know that he had to at least get past the first down marker. And still, Cody, finishing up three years as a starter, threw it to him when even if he caught it, the game would have been over for USC.
Wrong play. Wrong throw. Wrong way to go. Wrong-headed receiver. And wrong choice all the way around by the quarterback. That about sums up USC's first loss to Wisconsin in the series' seven games.
It sums up USC's first loss to a Big Ten team in 14 games this century. It sums up Wisconsin's first win over a team with a winning record this season. The Badgers' other nine wins came against losers.
And at 8-6, these Trojans aren't losers, they'll tell you. They're headed in "the right direction," Clay said after the game. More than once.
"Look at the amount of talent we have coming back," Clay said. But then this team had lots of talent and came away a loser. A good bit more talent -- on paper -- than Wisconsin. Which just shows you how much talent alone matters in the end.
Toughness matters. Discipline and execution matter. Technique matters. Knowing who you are and what you have to do matters. Wisconsin did. Did it well.
And still, against a USC team that did little well, played with little confidence or discipline, played from behind much of the way as they always do under Helton, Wisconsin had to hold on to win.
Switch the two coaching staffs and which team wins? You know the answer to that one. You don't even have to think twice.
Helton had preached he thought this team would be "assignment sound" and that would get them off to the start the Trojans needed. But after 30 minutes, with just five first downs and less than 10 minutes time of possession, it was obvious that wasn't happening.
No biggie, Chris Hawkins said. "I like playing with my back to the wall." Well, he's in the right place. For the eighth time under Helton, USC came from behind to take the lead back but then in half of those, couldn't hold it.
As they couldn't once again in this late night special in front of the second smallest Holiday Bowl crowd -- 48,329 -- in history.
The only surprise here was how USC could have possibly been leading late with a chance to win in a mistake-filled, uninspired effort.
"Put it on me," Helton said as he moves on to filling out his staff and figuring out how you get some offense going behind a line that only occasionally blocks when and where you want it to. Only occasionally allows the quarterback time to read his route-runners. Only occasionally picks up the blitzers (add the running backs to that one). And only occasionally blocks the defenders at the point of attack on first down.
It's why you practice. It's why Wisconsin did. For USC to come out and make so many mistakes is something Clay will have to live with. USC wanted to send the Trojans seniors out on a positive note but as has happened to them so often, USC let them down -- again.
"Second and 10 is a hard pull," Hawkins said of the mistakes in the run game or the missed passes. So is playing pass defense when you're trying out the "new techniques the last week," Hawkins said they were learning. They made Wisconsin's Joel Stave, with more interceptions than TD passes, look like Tom Brady.
Stave finished 16 of 25 for 183 yards and one TD with no sacks and no interceptions. Kessler meanwhile, was sacked three times for 23 yards, had an interception to balance out his 18 of 32 for 221 yards and also one TD.
But if that's almost a standoff, the run game that Helton says he wants to hang his hat on was not. USC, on 28 carries, averaged a miserable 2.3 yards with a season low 65 total against the smart, tough, disciplined Badgers led by Redlands native Dave Aranda as he made it clear if the Trojans are really looking for a top defensive coordinator, he's pretty good. The Badgers defense seemed to understand what USC was trying to run better than USC understood what it was trying to do.
Wisconsin, with 18 more rushes, netted 177 yards -- a 3.8 average as the Trojan D-line for the most part hung in there. But they couldn't get to Stave.
And in one of the most inept drives in college football history, with the Trojans looking at the chance to take the lead, trailing 20-14 with 4:27 left in the third period, USC took over at the 50. It was by far their best field position all night.
And they proceeded to allow Kessler to get sacked on first down for a nine-yard loss by Badger backup Jack Cichy. Then USC false-started. From second and 19 to second and 24. Then Cichy came back to sack Cody for seven more. Third and 31 Then he did it again. For seven more. Fourth and 38.
Cichy, who had a career-high of two sacks in a game coming into the Holiday Bowl, had more than that on this one series. And his hit on Cody caused the game's lone interception.
And that was followed up by a 39-yard Kris Albarado punt that allowed Wisconsin to start just a yard farther out than USC had started the previous series. And that, my friends, is not winning football.
That is the way an 8-6 team plays. And despite what might have been, and what went down this fall, this is an 8-6 team. Yes, this team has had all sorts of difficulties to overcome. All sorts of issues not of its own making that no other team has had to face.
"I feel helpless," Su'a Cravens said after his last USC game. "I can't do anything to help USC now . . . but there's nowhere to go but up from here . . . they don't have to deal with what Cody and I had to."
"Soma [Vainuku] said it best," Cody added. "We went through the darkest times so there could be a light for them at USC."
But we all know the joke about that light coming at you from the other end of the tunnel. It may be attached to a locomotive. It was on this night.
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