Last week we kept saying it. The Utah game was one of those "must win" deals. And we know how that turned out.
Now we're in a far more serious place for USC's 1-3 Trojans (0-2 in the Pac-12) when they kick off late this afternoon (5:30 p.m.) at the Coliseum on Fox.
They're in "can't lose" territory.
Not a good place to be. A place where there are no excuses. No explanations. No trying hard. No coming close. No "we'll get 'em next week."
None of that "but we really improved" stuff. None of that "boy did we compete hard." No "except for those couple of mistakes" or "if only we hadn't committed those penalties" rationales.
Forget the talk. This is about results. Did you win -- or did you lose?
USC has one acceptable answer now. That's what happens when you're 1-3 and should be 3-1.
Now that a one-dimensional, not-very-talented Stanford team without much speed, with un-Stanford-like size and strength across either line, little experience and one game-breaker who should probably have had your total attention has been unmasked the last two weeks, it's clear. UCLA knew it -- and blew it. Washington did not.
Too bad that realization set in only after the Cardinal had played and whipped an unready USC
That USC team was not ready to win -- physically or mentally.
Did not know how. Four or five game-changing mistakes will do that to a team. As they did last week as well for the second week in a row.
That's what happens when you've lost that winning feeling. When the people leading the program at the highest levels have proven over the last half-dozen yeas that they don't have a clue as to what to do other than take care of themselves, not the program that was entrusted to them, with their short-sighted, self-interested decisions that had nothing to do with doing everything they could to win.
Because that's what it takes. If it's about anything else, you think these players don't notice and follow suit.
If it happens again and again, or if behavior or circumstances are tolerated that prevent you from winning, well, what did you expect?
So now we have the scenario today where USC must do everything it takes to avoid losing. At some places, they call that "winning."
At USC right now, it's barely surviving since there's almost no chance of salvaging the season with another loss here.
So now we have the scenario where USC clearly wasn't ready for Alabama, although Ole Miss was ready a week later. And then USC wasn't ready to get the jump on Stanford or to finish strong against Utah.
And all the talk is about first-time head coach Clay Helton and his 1-5 record since being elevated after the UCLA win last fall. Clay gets that. He's doing the best he can. And yes, that is not a compliment. It's the reality.
Can he do better? Of course. Pretty much anyone could considering the current circumstances. Starting today . . . with Clay himself. He'll get the chance, as he should, to right the ship one game at a time for at least one game. And then we'll see.
Last year, Clay talked of the sudden-death-elimination, one-win-at-a-time way USC had to finish to win the Pac-12 South after he took over. And against a series of teams USC mostly should have beaten, they did. But as the embarrassments in the Pac-12 Championship Game against Stanford and then against Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl, sometimes just winning games you should win isn't enough.
But it's a start. And today, it's a necessity. Not just for this team but for an entire USC football community that badly needs a team to feel good about. To feel happy for. As it should have last week when the story out of Utah should have been the arrival of redshirt freshman Sam Darnold, a quarterback to take the USC program into the future.
Giving up a 14-point second-half lead prevented that. "Woe is me" is the Trojan catch-phrase now, not "Fight On."
"If only" is the other catch-phrase. If only Chris Petersen . . . , how many tell us, as if they have a time machine that could reverse any of this.
Or the one we ourselves like to fall back on: "What if". . . they'd have just done the right thing at the time when it became obvious they weren't going out on the open market to find the best available coach in the country and just extended Coach O for the next couple of years to see how that would work out. Not the perfect solution but far better than the Sark scenario that unfolded.
What message did that send so many of these players? Was that about winning? Was that about doing everything you could do to be the best program in the nation, as USC advertises as its goals?
Again, no need to answer. Those questions answer themselves.
And yet here we are with a team that can beat every single one of its next five opponents -- or lose to any one of them. Starting with an unbeaten -- and energized -- Arizona State. You notice that when a new neighbor comes by Friday in his Arizona State jersey. Had no idea he was a college football guy or a Sun Devil.
And he had no idea of my USC connection. But thanks to a USC buddy of his, he has the Trojan's season tickets for today and his parking pass. And as excited as he is about ASU, he's realistic. After all, they are giving up 400 yards a game passing, worst in the nation.
And USC is still USC, he says -- well, sort of.
Which is why USC fans, like my Sun Devil neighbor, need to get to the Coliseum for four of these next five weeks to, if nothing else, encourage a bunch of kids who have been asked to do something not all of the adults they've entrusted their college football careers to have done.
So show up and cheer like crazy for them. It won't change the outcome of where this is all going. What's going to happen is what's going to happen. Staying home or sitting on your hands won't change things.
It's only fair. USC has asked these guys to "Fight On" while so many here having been paid so much for so long had given up the fight.
For if there's one thing this USC team could come away with today as much as a W, it's something we haven't seen in a while. It's the pride that they fought as hard as they could, they didn't give in or give up.
They could have. But they didn't.
And for that, they can be proud.
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