Leading 21-17, USC used a timeout with 1:27 remaining to discuss their plan of action prior a crucial third-and-7 play from the Colorado 39-yard line Saturday afternoon. The Buffaloes had one timeout remaining. A USC first down would effectively end the game, allowing it to run out the clock.
Earlier in the quarter, USC had a third-and-10 in a similar spot on the field and had tried to throw it over the top to JuJu Smith-Schuster, who had a one-on-one matchup with the safety getting over too late. The Trojans chose to give their top perimeter playmaker another opportunity. The ball was going to him all the way.
Graduate assistant Prentice Gill was in the ear of USC’s star receiver during the timeout. On game days, USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin heads to the booth to get a bird’s eye view of the action and call the plays. In his physical absence, Gill takes over as the de facto receivers coach on the sideline. He was giving Smith-Schuster some final instructions as the Trojans broke the huddle and headed back on the field.
“My coach told me before to just score,” Smith-Schuster said referencing Gill after the game.
Possibly expecting USC to play it conservative with a run that would force Colorado to call its final timeout, the Buffaloes loaded the box with eight defenders. The Trojans’ three receivers each drew single man-to-man coverage. Smith-Schuster was alone to the wide side of the field with Ahkello Witherspoon.
Instead of another fade route, Smith-Schuster sold the fade and ran a stop route one yard past the sticks. The defense brings pressure with seven, but quarterback Sam Darnold is quickly releasing the ball to negate their attempts. The ball is coming off his fingertips at exactly the moment Smith-Schuster makes his break. Smith-Schuster comes back to the ball and makes the catch one yard shy of a first down, but pivots inside away from the Colorado cornerback.
Witherspoon barely gets a hand on Smith-Schuster, leaving USC’s big play receiver with 32 yards of daylight and an opportunity to heed Gill’s instructions in front of him.
But Smith-Schuster is a different cat.
His quick smile and childlike exuberance belies his competitive spirit. He acts like a curious and playful 10-year old off the field and a studious 10-year NFL veteran on it. Smith-Schuster said he knew “when Colorado has one timeout that once you get the first down, you take three knees and the game is over.”
After making the catch, he burst up the field at full throttle for five yards before beginning to slow. He jogged another five yards and took a peak back at Witherspoon chasing after him. With the Colorado defender closing in, Smith-Schuster took two hard strides and began into a slide, getting down inbounds at at the 14-yard line after a 25-yard gain.
People immediately wondered aloud why Smith-Schuster didn’t run in for the easy touchdown. The vocalizations of those that bet USC to cover a spread that ranged from 5-6.5 points were more than simple wonder. But Smith-Schuster made the perfect team move.
“I didn't want to give the ball back to Colorado,” he said. “Game's over. I mean obviously, you saw it. Colorado never got the ball back. They didn't have an opportunity to go down, score, kick an onside kick and get the ball back.”
USC took three kneel downs in the victory formation and the game was over.
“Really a special play by a special player, a veteran player to understand the game situation,” USC head coach Clay Helton said. “To get that first down, understand where the game was and to get down to end it I thought was tremendous.”
But not everyone agreed. Some opined that the smarter move would have been to put USC up by two scores with less than 80 seconds remaining, thinking it was improbable for Colorado to score quickly, get a two-point conversion, regain an onside kick and then kick a field goal to tie the game. And yes, that is quite an unlikely undertaking. However, it is not impossible. There is a crazy ending or two every week in college football.
The situations obviously aren’t exact, but the Trojans saw the other side in the infamous Jael Mary game against Arizona State in 2014. Buck Allen scored a 53-yard touchdown with 3:02 remaining and the extra point put the Trojans up by nine. The Sun Devils scored on the first play on the subsequent drive and then forced a three-and-out to get the ball back and then won on the 46-yard pass to Jaelen Strong.
Rather than an onside kick, Arizona State had to get a three-and-out with no timeouts remaining and it did that to set up the unlikely finish. In college football, 18-22-year olds make mistakes. It’s part of the game and what makes the sport so exciting, so instead of risking something absurd happening, Smith-Schuster took the possibility out of Colorado’s hands.
“It was hard. It was hard for me,” Smith-Schuster said of fighting the urge to pad his statistics. “In my head, I was like, ‘man, I should score.’ A lot of people from the outside in will say that 'Oh, he should have scored.' But if you're really smart and you really know the game well, you know you can end the game early. It took a lot out of me to go down.”
By sliding to the ground and keeping the clock rolling, Smith-Schuster allowed USC to take three kneel downs in the victory formation — aka the safest, surest play in all of football. Kneeling used to be frowned upon as unsportsmanlike, but after Herman Edwards’ famous ‘Miracle at the Meadowlands’ fumble return on a botched handoff in 1978, teams quickly implemented the victory formation with five linemen, two tight ends, two personal protectors (typically running backs) up close to the line of scrimmage to each side of the quarterback and then a just-in-case-of-disaster player eight to 10 yards behind the quarterback.
It has since become the ubiquitous sign of the end of a game. For nearly four decades, NFL teams have been using the formation and there is not one instance of a team lined up in it fumbling and losing a game. What about college players, being more prone to errors? While there may be one or two instance somewhere that have been forgotten about or were inconsequential because the score was lopsided, there has been only one notable botched victory formation.
In 2010, Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden, playing with a sprained thumb against Troy, muffed an under-center snap and the other Trojans were able to recover the fumble. Fortunately for Weeden, Troy fumbled the ball right back and Oklahoma State was able to get the win. Two weeks later, with a similar opportunity to close a game out, the Cowboys elected to take a kneel down out of the shotgun rather than under-center since the only time they were ever under-center was for the victory formation.
USC didn’t have that unfamiliarity. Though the Trojans use under-center alignments sparingly, they do go under-center every game and practice those snaps every week.
Colorado’s alternative if Smith-Schuster scored may have been improbable, but scoring without the ball was impossible.
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