(Photo Credit: Daniel Tran/Annenberg Media)

USC’s Comeback Efforts Wane Against Wisconsin

The season ends with a disheartening defeat at the Holiday Bowl

It’s not often you get second chances in football. It’s not often you only have 286 yards of total offense, average less than five yards a play or have only 65 yards on the ground and still have a chance to win the game.

But there was USC on Wednesday night, once again embodying the epitome of its season one more time out on the field: A slow start, a seemingly inexplicable comeback and a chance to win in spite of themselves. In their final game of the season, the sputtering train that had gone through everything was hoping to make it to the finish line on a positive note for both departing seniors and their newly-minted head coach alike.

Not once, but twice was the Trojans’ offense allowed a chance at redemption, an opportunity to garner a win they had not earned but somehow stumbled into. And twice they squandered their chances, either by the errant hand of QB Cody Kessler who was intercepted or by the finite amount of time that expired with them at midfield only needing a field goal to win the game.

Kicker Alex Wood never got a chance to give the wild game a fairytale finish with his right foot. A Hail Mary call gone awry ending in a turnover on downs is what will stick in the minds of many. Both Kessler and the recipient of his short pass, wide receiver Darreus Rogers, owned up to their mistake afterward, their thinking perhaps too ambitious for the situation.

“[Helton] called Hail Mary, and the corner was playing way off, and I tagged Darreus on the out-route, because there was enough time to get him at the sticks and get it out, and he just came up to me after and said I didn’t see it was fourth down.” — QB Cody Kessler
“Me and Cody were on two different pages,” Rogers admitted, “He told me me to run an out, but I forgot the down and distance and it was short of the first down.”

It is what will be dissected, discussed and remembered, but the road to the 21–23 loss in the 2015 Holiday Bowl was initiated early.

It began when USC punted three straight times on their first three drives of the game. It started when they could only manage 37 yards of offense in the first quarter. It continued when they allowed Wisconsin to control the time of possession throughout the first half; the Badgers holding the ball for 20 minutes compared to the Trojans’ nine.

The faulty foundation was set then, as it had become customary under Clay Helton. After a touchdown drive that they were able to patch together, USC headed into the locker room somehow only down six points.

“I think it’s a mental thing,” said running back Justin Davis of the slow starts. “Because we clearly have the talent.”

The halftime deficit would turn out to be four points too many, as Wisconsin began the second half with a massive 6-minute touchdown drive—after another quick USC punt—that had the defense on its heels. That is where the Peter Sirmon-led unit was all game, having to counteract a methodical offense that was patient and clinical in its balance, while seeing more field time than the offense. A few short runs here, a play-action pass there, sometimes aided by a bigger play that only served to keep the defense from stacking the box, ultimately forcing USC to play Wisconsin’s type of game.

It was a game plan perfectly executed by the Badgers, but given their subpar offense, it was exacerbated by the Trojans’ inconsistent defense, affected both by long-term fatigue and the staff turnover that created some uncertainty.

“We’re all tired,” admitted safety Chris Hawkins afterward.

Hawkins was referring to the physical toil, of course, but it spoke volumes given the Trojans’ problematic season and all that players had to endure on and off the field. From being a top-ranked team with hope and potential, to quickly becoming an over-scrutinized group after a few losses, to a squad without a true head coach for much of the season, this team unfortunately became the product of an issue they could not control, an detriment bigger than a simple missed tackle or a failed route.

You could see it in their faces—some emotional, others stoic—how the end was bittersweet, as they walked in and out of the locker room at Qualcomm Stadium. That as the clock hit zero on their season, they needed a respite, but also craved a moral victory they were unable to attain—a final form of saving grace for a season that went down the drain.

“I was throwing blocks and trying to get in there and doing whatever I could,” said Kessler. “I left everything I had on that field.”

For the seniors who depart, their goodbye is unseemly fitting, but looking back offers no solution to their shortcomings, only a reminder of their time that was only consistent in its inconsistency. Instead, looking at the bright side of who is to supplant them next season provides a way to cope with what can no longer be changed.

“[I] feel like they got a bright future here with the young guys coming back,” senior lineman Delvon Simmons said. “They’re going to do work next year.”

It’s a look at Ronald Jones, his explosive freshman year, capped by a few more impressing runs during Wednesday’s game, that provides hope that, however the ground game is used in the future, it remains in great hands—or rather, great feet.

It’s a look at Adoree’ Jackson, his consistency on defense, his erratic production on offense and his ability to open eyes and drop jaws at any moment with his all-around talent, that personifies the tangible bevy of talent the Trojans still possess.

It’s a look at linebackers Cam Smith and Porter Gustin, that serves as constant reminder of a defensive talent pool is deep with both youth and potential, patiently waiting to be tapped into and unleashed.

And if nothing else, it’s a look at Juju Smith-Schuster and his warrior-like efforts that could not be deterred by neither injuries nor trash-talking defenders, showing that there are visible silver lining moving forward amid the wreckage that remains.

“I think our future is very, very bright, and I do not let this game deter it,” Helton reiterated.

As learned again this year, however, it’s not all about the players and the talent. It’s about the coaching, the cohesion and the overall focus as well. There’s no doubt the uncertainty still remains with what those at the helm, including Helton, Tee Martin and whoever coaches the defense, can do to point this team in the right direction. Only time will tell whether the faith the program showed in them will pay dividends, but that time will be here faster than expected.

With a gauntlet of a schedule that begins with none other than Alabama in 2016, a new quarterback and new coaches, USC once again has no choice but to just pick up the pieces of a dysfunctional campaign quickly and move forward with a sense of purpose, hoping that they find their long-lost identity along the way.

You can reach Sports Editor Paolo Uggetti here, or follow him on Twitter @PaoloUggetti

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