Rewind: lamenting the last-second losses

You almost get the sense that Saturday’s 48-14 win over Cal left USC feeling more stung than joyful. How do you not pause to think about what could have been?

Follow this train of events: USC pounded Cal, which pounded UCLA, which pounded Texas, which beat Nebraska. Does that mean USC is a top five program hiding out in the “others receiving votes” category? Maybe, at least according to coach Lane Kiffin (though for entirely different reasons).

Kiffin said he found himself thinking about those two last-second losses that preceded Saturday’s landslide win as he was walking up the tunnel at halftime, USC having built a ridiculous 42-0 lead against Cal.

Those kickers who chipped in field goals and those quarterbacks who staged the drives before them took away so many things away from USC. They snatched its season-long goal -- to go 13-0 -- and they may have robbed Matt Barkley of the chance to do what Tim Tebow was the first to do, win the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore.

Kiffin said Sunday afternoon that he thinks about those losses “about 50 times a day.”

“We’re on our way to 7-0, potentially a top 5 team in the country getting ready to play the No. 1 team in the country,” Kiffin said. “So, that’s the difficult thing, the thing that’s most glaring, I’m sure, to everybody as you think of the first half of the season: how close we were.

“We played well on offense, we played well on special teams, but we played poorly on defense until yesterday. We wouldn’t have had to play great. If we could have just played somewhat bad and not horribly on defense in those two games, we’d be sitting here at 7-0.”

Yeah, sure, but … How does a team that, in its coach’s own word, played “horribly” in a key phase of the game for more than a month, suddenly awaken? And, do you trust it when it does? Were the first five weeks of missed assignments and lousy tackle the aberration, or was Saturday the aberration? The beauty of that question is we don’t have to wait long, less than two more weeks, to find out.

The numbers still say this: USC’s defense is No. 90 out of 120 in the NCAA. Its pass defense is No. 111. Are those numbers moving up? Maybe, but for how long? The No. 1 offense in the land -- not to mention the No. 1 team in the land -- visits the Coliseum a week from Saturday. The Oregon Ducks are top ranked for the first time in their history. There’s no doubt they’ve supplanted USC as the heavies in this conference.

The collateral damage from those defensive implosions has been Barkley, who -- as Kiffin says -- probably would be a frontrunner for the Heisman if USC were undefeated. He’s eighth in the nation in pass efficiency and he has more passing yards (1,869) and touchdowns (20) than any of the seven guys ahead of him. He also has fewer interceptions (four) than any of those guys other than Boise State’s Kellen Moore and Alabama’s Greg McElroy.

If USC fans don’t appreciate this guy, what are they waiting for? Will they not realize how good he is until he’s playing on Sundays?

Kiffin said he still sees in his mind’s eye the passes Barkley has missed on, and that’s a good thing. He sees those two overthrows near the end of the Washington game, the ball he underthrew to Ronald Johnson going for a USC-record sixth touchdown pass Saturday.

“When you can name the passes he’s being inaccurate on, that means he’s doing really well,” Kiffin said.

If USC fans are beginning to tune out -- and Saturday’s attendance was the worst of the season on a drab afternoon -- they might want to keep this team at least in their peripheral vision. In addition to the electric matchup of Oct. 30 -- Barkley’s boys trying to equal up to Oregon’s quick-strike attack -- this team has as many playmakers as it has since Reggie Bush left.

Robert Woods and Johnson are one of the best receiver tandems in the nation. Stanley Havili, David Ausberry and a four-deep tailback rotation give Barkley plenty of options. If only this team and its fans could trust that defense. At least Saturday it finally came up with a good-will deposit.