Trojans finish on a high note

PASADENA, Calif. -- A bad season of college football for Southern California -- and in Southern California -- came mercifully to an end with USC's 28-14 win over UCLA on Saturday night at the Rose Bowl. It was a clutch win in a meaningless moment.

Unless your name is Allen Bradford, and it's probably not, Saturday was all about one thing for USC: avoiding disaster.

The night began that way, and it ended with the Trojans keeping the floodwaters at bay. They held back a storm of negativity that could have swamped the program heading into a crucial offseason. It was the worst season for USC in a decade, but it could have been worse.

Nobody even made much pretense that this was anything other than disaster control. That and -- of course -- one more slap at the Trojans' archrival, stuck in a miserable funk.

To lose Saturday would have turned uncertainty into a murky mess, maybe set back the rebuilding process for years. To lose to a mediocre Notre Dame team and a bad UCLA team ... hard to fathom, isn't it, USC fans?

"This would have been awful to lose to our two rivals in back-to-back weeks. It would have been a long offseason," USC athletic director Pat Haden said. "Listen, we lost five games, we're not happy about that, but it's a great way to end the season."

The Trojans (8-5, 5-4) were good enough to go to a bowl game -- a minor one in some hard-to-reach spot -- but that's kind of not what it's about at USC. The goal is to hold steady through the painful years and set up a platform for launch time, say around fall of 2012 or maybe a little sooner.

Even the guys on the way out the door saw Saturday as more about the future than the present and certainly not the past. It became painfully evident the past few weeks that things aren't the same around Heritage Hall and haven't been for a while.

"It's going to change. Things are going to turn around over here, and I'm glad to be a part of this foundation," senior fullback Stanley Havili said.

There will be more to build on if a couple of draft-eligible underclassmen, offensive tackle Tyron Smith and defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, return. Casey said he'll meet with the coaches next week before making up his mind, but he sounded excited about the team's potential. Then again, it's kind of easy to get excited about a bunch of money, too. If you're hoping Casey returns, note the "we" below:

"This is going to set us up for next year, build the fire and get everybody to play harder than ever," Casey said. "We'll just keep on going and, hopefully, next year we have a better record."

USC coach Lane Kiffin showed his soft side Saturday, featuring Bradford, the fifth-year senior who had waited behind an ever-changing line of starting tailbacks. Bradford ran explosively, scoring two touchdowns, including a 73-yard dash and a 47-yard screen pass that he took and streaked down the sideline with. Bradford had 267 total yards, 220 of them rushing on 28 carries.

The Trojans' defense, a liability most of the year, showed signs of eclipsing the offense in the final weeks. UCLA, far from a machine, broke down and sputtered under an aggressive USC pass rush. Richard Brehaut was sacked twice by Armond Armstead and hounded all night.

But the offense, other than Bradford, was anemic, hardly offering a glimpse of high-flying endeavors to come. Quarterback Matt Barkley, playing with a high ankle sprain, threw two interceptions and completed just 15 of his 26 passes. USC searched all year for the complete game but rarely found it. That's something to wonder about.

"We've been showing signs of greatness here or there, the offense at the beginning, the defense at the end," Casey said. "As soon as we get them all together, it's going to be a great year."

Of course, if they don't look forward to 2011, what are they going to look forward to, the appeal process? That sounds like about as much fun as a visit to the county auditor.

But it would be a mistake to say that this team quit. It could have checked out after a second straight last-second loss at Stanford in early October. At that point, with a 4-2 record, what was there to play for? Not the Rose Bowl, of course. Saturday night's appearance there was the only one USC would get to make. Then again, it wasn't going to be invited to San Diego, San Antonio or El Paso, either, thanks to the NCAA's bowl ban.

USC showed surprising resolve when it didn't really have to. The Trojans played their best game against Cal the next week, had a third-quarter lead against Oregon and then swept the Arizona schools.

USC was turning back into USC, it seemed.

Only it wasn't. Things fell apart where they often do for this team, Corvallis, Ore., a friendly little college town to most, a carnivorous plant to the Trojans. The loss to Notre Dame at home was even more difficult to swallow, especially for receiver Ronald Johnson, who was left speechless by his late drop of what would have been the go-ahead touchdown.

It generally felt like a joyless season -- in part because of the sanctions, in part because Kiffin seemed perpetually miserable (and that was after the wins). There also weren't a lot of good outcomes on the table. An 8-5 USC team is a miserable USC team, but, of course, not quite as miserable as a 7-6 USC team.

If the juniors stick around, USC will have 16 offensive and defensive starters coming back next season. They'll have a year of experience with the coaching staff. School officials are cautiously optimistic that they can get some of the sanctions cut in half at a January appeals hearing. In other words, 2011 has hope, the most fragile commodity of all around this team.

Mark Saxon covers USC football for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter. Follow him on Twitter.