Photo credit Lisa Horne
by Lisa Horne
When USC lost to Arizona State 38-34, Los Angeles Times reporter Lindsey Thiry tweeted "F-bombs [were] flying from #USC coaches and players coming off the field after ASU wins on Hail Mary."
It was a shocking loss.
USC had the game in hand. The Trojans were up by nine points with 3:02 left to play in regulation. Cue the offense and defense to seal the victory. Everybody knew what was coming.
Give the ball to Buck Allen for three consecutive downs to run down the clock? Check. Punt? Check. Deploy the Prevent to make fans sweat? Check. Defend the deep pass?
The whole point of the Prevent is to keep all pass plays in front of the defenders, isn't it? Why yes, yes it is. And give USC credit, its defense managed to do just that.
Arizona State's Jaelen Strong caught a Hail Mary in front of USC defenders. He also scored a touchdown in front of the USC defenders who were standing in the endzone looking up in the air for the ball.
Head coach Steve Sarkisian explained the confusion on the final play of the game, according to Orange County Register's Michael Lev:
“We got the call made, a couple guys were not in position, but they adjusted after the snap,” Sarkisian said. “They ended up being in the right position. Unfortunately, we did not get the ball knocked down.”
ASU receiver Jaelen Strong made a leaping, unimpeded catch of Mike Bercovici’s pass at about the 1-yard line before crossing the goal line with the winning touchdown. Sarkisian said safety Leon McQuay III was the designated jumper on the play, but he knocked into linebacker Hayes Pullard, who was the closest defender. Pullard did not make a play on the ball.
Sarkisian claims that players were in the right position. That is hard to fathom since Strong caught the ball and basically walked into the endzone untouched. If no one was near him or the ball, it stands to reason that players were not in the right positions.
USC safety Gerald Bowman said that he did not think everyone "was on the same page," according to the same report. Bowman implied there may have been a communication problem. Sarkisian implied that the execution of the plan failed.
If having only one designated jumper to bat down the ball was the plan, then maybe the plan needs to be tossed into the trash can. Did anyone not think Strong was going to be the designated target? He is the most productive receiver in the conference, after all. Maybe have a few guys stick to him like glue?
This wasn't the first time Sarkisian has been burned on a long bomb by Arizona State. In 2009, quarterback Danny Sullivan hit Chris McGaha on a 50-yard touchdown pass with :05 left on the clock. Washington, under then-head coach Sarkisian, lost 24-17.
What is going on here and who is to blame?
USC ranks third in the conference yielding an average 226.4 passing yards per game. But against Arizona State, USC's secondary was burned on two plays for 119 yards that resulted in two touchdowns.
The defensive line can be fierce but in one game, it looked like a puppy trying to fend off wolves. Boston College rushed for 452 yards and five touchdowns in the Trojans' 37-31 loss. The rushing defense has stiffened up since that mid-September debacle but USC faces the Pac-12's best rushing team in Arizona on Saturday.
If USC suffers another embarrassing loss due to a defensive lapse, defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox may need to update his resume. At Washington, Sarkisian dismissed defensive coordinator Nick Holt two days after the Huskies gave up 777 yards to Baylor in their loss at the 2011 Alamo Bowl.
USC has lost two of its last three games. While that's cause for concern, expectations may have been too high after Kiffin was dismissed. USC is still playing at a disadvantage with a maximum 75 scholarshipped players available. In 2015 USC can begin to restock its roster back up to 85 but it may not feel the benefits until 2016. Or 2017.
While USC tries to survive with at most, 75 scholarshipped players, the Pac-12 has become much deeper in the last three years. It's not just Oregon and Stanford and everyone else. Washington State is a real threat. So is Arizona, Cal and artists formerly known as the Gutty Little Bruins.
The Trojans cannot afford dumb losses. Not in this league.
The loss to Boston College represented an unfocused team hung over from a win over Stanford. The loss to Arizona State represented a team simply not finishing the game.
Both losses fall on the shoulders of the coaching staff. This isn't a case of poor execution. It's a case of poor communication and failure to keep players focused. It's a case of a defense giving up more than 500 yards to the Sun Devils' second-string quarterback.
Sarkisian can fix this. The first step is to shoulder all of the blame instead of pointing fingers elsewhere.
The second step is to open up the playbook and allow Kessler to get the vertical game going.
The final step? Give the bubble screen a proper burial and may it rest in peace at the University of Southern California.