December drew a frigid end of the season for a USC football team that was already getting cold.
With a tie for second place in the Pac-10 and possible bid to the Holiday Bowl on the line, USC intended to send its seniors out on top after a trying year. But on a gloomy day in front of a sparse Coliseum crowd, the Trojans closed their year on an icy note.
Arizona sank USC, 21-17, on the heels of a long pass to wide receiver Juron Criner, who fought off a defender into the end zone after hauling in the catch on the sideline. With three minutes remaining after the score, USC could not get a first down on the following drive and watched helplessly as quarterback Matt Barkley was sacked on the final play of the game.
The loss brought a bitter close to a season that many players called disappointing and frustrating.
“It feels so different where we have been and what we have done,” USC coach Pete Carroll said. “It never really kicked in like we wanted to.
USC’s offense languished for most of the day, generating only 282 yards against the Wildcats. Barkley completed 20 of his 37 passes for 144 yards and a touchdown against one interception. Running back Allen Bradford tied the game in the third-quarter on a 5-yard touchdown run and finished with 66 yards.
Despite showing flashes of promise, the Trojans’ attack was plagued by inconsistency.
“We have to put a complete game together and that’s on me,” said USC quarterbacks coach and playcaller Jeremy Bates.
But Carroll said USC’s ongoing offensive woes were not to blame for the loss.
“It was a day for the defense to win the football game and they didn’t get that done,” Carroll said.
The Wildcats controlled the ball for most of the first half, converting several third-downs and keeping USC’s offense off the field. Nick Foles plunged into the endzone on a quarterback keeper to give Arizona a 14-7 lead at the half.
But Arizona struggled to generate offense after the break.
“We broke down a little bit and didn’t execute,” Arizona coach Mike Stoops said.
The Wildcats got the big play they needed, though, on the 36-yard dart to Criner that proved to be the difference.
“They were in press coverage. If people try to press us, we try to hit fades,” Stoops said. “He put the ball where it needed to be.
With a long break before the team’s yet-to-be-announced bowl game, several players were stewed on the unsatisfying finish. But some players refused to be bitter about the loss.
“I can’t hang my head because I’ve been blessed with everything I’ve been able to do here,” said senior safety Taylor Mays, playing his final game in the Coliseum.
Said fellow senior safety Will Harris: “It’s just been an emotional and frustrating year, but we dealt with it the best we could.”
The Trojans’ fourth in-conference defeat marked a high for Carroll in his time at USC. After a long run of dominant play at home, the Trojans have now lost two of their last three games at the Coliseum.
“It’s one of those things you grow up dreaming about, beating USC here,” Foles said.
The loss sent the Trojans tumbling down the Pac-10 standings and pecking order for bowls. The Poinsettia Bowl is now USC’s most likely destination, according to a USC spokesman, although the Las Vegas Bowl and Emerald Bowl remained options following the game.
The years of playing in the Rose Bowl and for Pac-10 championships appeared to be distant memories for several players.
“That’s why guys come here, to have that opportunity,” said senior guard Jeff Byers, who played his final home game in a six-year career. “You have to remember and take advantage of that on every play because you never know when it’s over or when you’re going to get another shot.”