USC can't find way to finish

LOS ANGELES -- The safety was set up to his outside. After the double move he put on the cornerback, the entire Notre Dame secondary was an afterthought, anyway. He had all those guys beat.

This was the play that was going to give USC the scaffolding to build its rebirth around.

It was Ronald Johnson all by himself out there at the 14-yard line, him and about 75,000 people staring down at him in the rain. It had to be the loneliest place in the world.

You could see it in Johnson's body language as he collapsed a second or two after the ball clanged off his left shoulder and landed on the soggy earth.

You could see it in his eyes as he strode up the tunnel a few minutes later, his helmet still gripping his head like a vice, his forehead creased. Somebody asked Johnson a couple of questions. He couldn't even gather his voice to speak.

Later, he summoned some saliva in the back of his throat, but it wasn't exactly a booming voice that emerged.

"I feel like I should've made that play," Johnson said. "I let my team down."

Johnson dropped the ball -- on what would have been a go-ahead touchdown with about a minute left -- and USC lost a game to its bitter rival for the first time in nine years, falling 20-16. It's about as simple as that, sadly.

And, yes, sadly is the word, because Johnson is a very good receiver who has done a lot of things to help the USC football team in his four years on campus. He'll probably be playing in the NFL nine months from now. You can tell he's a popular guy -- a senior playing in his final game at the Coliseum -- because so many of his teammates rushed to his defense.

Tight ends coach Keary Colbert, a former standout USC receiver, spent a few minutes huddled with Johnson outside the locker room, his arm wrapped around his neck, holding him tight.

Coach Lane Kiffin wasn't particularly merciful toward Johnson in his postgame assessment. There seems to be a lot of that going around in college football these days. California coach Jeff Tedford blamed his kicker when his team lost to Oregon by two points a few weeks ago. It's shameful behavior, the opposite of leadership.

"I was shocked," Kiffin said of the drop. "It was something we worked on for that coverage. It's just a shame, because now you've got a whole locker room and the whole Trojan family all down in the tank at one play that completely changes the whole outcome."

But Johnson's misplay was only a symptom, not the disease. This USC team showed an inability to finish things all season, a willingness to let inferior teams linger, a tendency to snap under duress. Kiffin can point to one of his players all he wants, but at some point he and the coaches are going to have to figure out why this team couldn't finish. Most of these guys, not including Johnson, will be back in 2011. If this team doesn't grow a little tougher, there's no guarantee next season will be much better than the mediocrity this one has become.

Not long ago, USC teams played like merciless machines, chewing up opponents whether they were in their home stadium or in exotic locales. The 2010 team played meekly at times, flinching at the least opportune moments. Its defense played one of its finest games of the season for all but one drive Saturday, but it was the winning drive -- Notre Dame's freshman quarterback, Tommy Rees, somehow leading a seven-play, 77-yard touchdown march after a hideous third quarter.

USC (7-5) wanted to lean on Notre Dame on a rainy, cool night with Mitch Mustain starting in place of injured Matt Barkley. Here's how hard it leaned on the Irish: 84 rushing yards. That's a pathetic output for a USC offensive line filled with five-star recruits and a backfield of guys who, supposedly, could start at any other school.

"I don't know. It's crazy," USC running back C.J. Gable said, unable to grasp why his team couldn't run the ball.

The most baffling failure was that bend-and-do-break effort by the defense on Notre Dame's final drive, after it had hounded Rees into throwing three interceptions and fumbling the ball near his own end zone. With everything riding on the outcome, the defense suddenly grew soft. The scheme was passive, the tackling hesitant.

Before that drive, USC had held Notre Dame to 219 total yards and had a plus-four turnover margin. The game shouldn't even have been close at that point.

"That's all well and good, but if you can't finish on the last drive, that's all that matters," linebacker Chris Galippo said.

That's about as well as you can say it. When you don't finish, nothing else matters.

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