LOS ANGELES – On a clear October night at the Coliseum, the storm clouds that had been hovering over the USC football team for the past two years momentarily drifted into the distance.
They are not entirely out of sight, of course. They will be around the program for the next three years while the team is on probation, but for one night anyway, it was hard to hear the rumbling over the sold-out crowd or see the lightning past every one of USC’s touchdowns.
History will remember this game as a 56-48 win for Stanford in triple overtime. Box scores have a way of condensing big moments like that. But if Lane Kiffin’s tenure at USC turns into anything more than just another line on his ever-growing resume, this game will be remembered as more than just another loss on his record. It will be remembered as a turning point.
Kiffin has been preaching to his team to believe in his system, trust the high-paid assistants he has assembled and in time they will once again be contenders.
It has often been easier said than done. Especially after a blowout loss to Arizona State earlier this season and an 8-5 record last season where the team lost five-of-eight games towards the end of the season. Yet, following a 43-22 loss to Arizona State on Sept. 25, USC defeated Arizona, blew out Cal and beat Notre Dame to the point of submission before nearly upsetting Stanford in a game it led 34-27 with less than a minute and felt it should have won in regulation before being denied an opportunity to kick a game-winning field goal. It wasn't until Curtis McNeal fumbled the ball into the end zone during the third overtime that USC's dreams of upsetting the Cardinal were dashed.
“If you’re going to play a team that has the longest winning streak in the country and has beaten everybody by over 25 points and you go down to a game that could have gone either way,” Kiffin said. “You have to be pleased with where your team is at.”
There were no moral victories for the USC players after the game as they left the Coliseum. This was the type of game and the type of atmosphere they came to the school for. The 93,607 in attendance was the largest crowd at the Coliseum since USC played Ohio State in 2008. And unlike they have over the past three seasons, most of the crowd stayed until the end of the game -- raising the roof for every one of USC's 48 points and swaying back and forth after every touchdown.
“It was great to have that back,” Kiffin said. “That’s been gone for a while, the feeling that was there tonight. Unfortunately we didn’t finish for them.”
There was a glazed look on Matt Barkley’s face as he sat outside of USC’s locker room, waiting to talk to the media. Normally the USC quarterback is still in his uniform when he talks to reporters but he had quickly changed into his warm-ups and stared into the distance before he was called to address the media.
For the better part of the last two seasons, he and his teammates have been left to fight someone else’s battles, answer someone else’s questions and serve someone else’s punishment. When he was at Mater Dei, dreaming of becoming USC’s next quarterback, he envisioned playing in front of sold out crowds at the Coliseum, facing top-five teams and contending for a national championship.
For one night, he felt he had a chance to experience that, even though his team is not eligible to play in a bowl game. If this turns out to be his final year at USC, this game will likely be remembered as the high-water mark of his time at the Coliseum.
“This was the most energy I’ve felt at the Coliseum, it was electric,” Barkley said. “I’m just bummed we couldn’t give them a win.”
The battle cry at USC is “fight on.” It’s a simple two-word phrase that students and alumni alike say to one another all the time. They say it so often that the meaning may get lost. While this year's team will not be remembered at Heritage Hall years from now with any trophies or awards, few teams in this school's history have embodied the spirit of that motto quite as well.
It was evident in the way Nickell Robey returned Andrew Luck’s interception for a 36-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. Or the way Randall Telfer broke through tackles and dove for the pylon in overtime. Or the way Marqise Lee fought for every last yard in the third overtime and had to be helped off the field afterwards.
This young team with seemingly nothing to play for has continued to fight on this season because that’s what they’re supposed to do, whether or not there is a bowl game waiting for them at the end of the season.