OK, so that wasn't what USC fans were expecting to see. And this isn't the position the Trojans were expecting to be in right now. But the debacle in the desert did happen, the Trojans did lose 39-36 to the Arizona Wildcats, and suddenly USC's season of unfinished business is at a serious turning point.
What had been shaping up to be a potentially dramatic finish for the Trojans is now a fight for their bowl lives. This is no longer a matter of rankings or polls, this is now a gut check that will play a big role in how the rest of this season plays out and how this team is remembered.
How did the Trojans get to this point? By going to Tucson last weekend and suffering one of the more disheartening losses in recent USC memory. With all due respect to the Wildcats -- they certainly played well enough to come away with the victory -- the Trojans aren't walking away from this one thinking they got beat. They believe they beat themselves, and that makes it hurt even more.
In a critical game for a team that had waited two years for a chance to play in November with a championship on the line, the Trojans committed five turnovers, had 13 penalties, plenty of missed opportunities and some questionable decision making from players and coaches alike.
There have been many opinions offered about what happened in the game, and plenty of critical words, and the one person who is squarely in the crosshairs of the conversations is USC coach Lane Kiffin.
There is a lot of merit to the thought that coaches are not the ones on the field. They are not the ones throwing the interceptions, committing the penalties or missing the tackles that directly impact the game. That is true. But it's also true that coaches are the ones responsible for developing the team, preparing a game plan and managing the in-game strategy. And those facets will always play a key role.
The game against Arizona was a big one for Kiffin, who has never before faced a season with such high expectations as a head coach. The season had not gone smoothly, with a series of off-field distractions and the inability to find a consistent offensive rhythm, yet the Trojans were still in the thick of the championship hunt heading down the stretch. The Wildcats, while considered a formidable opponent with a high-powered offense, were considered by many to be little more than an appetizer on the way to a November feast of big-time matchups.
These are the kinds of games where coaches earn their money. Some call them trap games. Whatever you want to call them, they are fraught with danger when you are on the road in a key game against an opponent who doesn't see itself as an underdog.
From the very beginning, things just didn't seem right for USC. The Trojans took the opening drive and marched for 13 plays but were halted by a personal-foul penalty against true freshman Max Tuerk and an interception by Matt Barkley. The Wildcats promptly took the ball and -- with the help of a fourth-down personal-foul penalty on senior captain T.J. McDonald -- promptly drove the length of the field for the opening touchdown.
The Trojans had a chance to answer with a score of their own on the next drive with a chip-shot field goal but chose to go for it on fourth down, and the pass fell incomplete. This was an important moment, because it's always a good idea to take the early points in any game. Arizona then took a 10-0 lead on its next drive with the help of another personal-foul penalty on the Trojans. This certainly became a theme of the game, as USC totaled 13 penalties to add to their NCAA-leading total.
At that point, the Trojans went on a run as Marqise Lee simply went wild. Barkley kept on throwing him the ball, and Lee kept on exploding for big gains. He had three pass receptions of 49 yards or more in the first half alone. By the time Lee caught a 44-yard touchdown on USC's opening second-half possession, the Trojans had built a 28-13 lead.
On the next possession, things started going sideways for the Trojans. Robert Woods was headed down the sideline uncovered after the Arizona defender fell down, yet Barkley overthrew the ball. A score there makes it 35-13, and USC likely cruises from there. But he didn't score, and on three consecutive USC possessions in the third quarter, the Trojans curiously did not throw to Lee.
That decision mirrored a coaching strategy Kiffin had used before, most notably against Washington earlier this year. In both games, the opponent was able to mount a second-half comeback, but the result was different this time, as the Wildcats went on to score 26 straight points before holding on for the win.
The Trojans had one last chance to pull out the victory but, in many ways, the execution on the final drive was the last example USC fans needed to put this game on Kiffin. USC hit three straight first-down pass plays in the middle of the field, but Kiffin chose not to spike the ball after any of the plays, allowing precious seconds to tick off the clock. In the end, the Trojans were not able to attempt a game-tying kick.
The result was a devastating loss that resonated loudly through college football and the USC locker room. Gone are the dreams of a national title, and now comes the reality of having to regroup and get ready for the onslaught that will arrive next weekend in the form of the Oregon Ducks. And then there are Pac-12 South contests against Arizona State and UCLA before a season-ending game against a potentially undefeated Notre Dame squad.
If Kiffin thought the road so far has been tough, he should know it's not going to get any easier. Of course, if he wants to prove he is the right coach for USC, there could be no better way to show it than to have his team prepared for what lies ahead.