It happened, again.
It wasn’t pretty. It was hardly palatable.
For the second week in a row, USC won a game in the final seconds, barely, edging Utah in the first-ever Pac-12 game.
Based on games one and two, living on the edge might serve as an appropriate slogan for the 2011 Trojans. Living on a prayer might even be more fitting.
But it counts, technically. USC is still 2-0, sitting atop the Pac-12 South standings, undefeated heading into a home contest against unranked Syracuse in week three.
“Wins like this can sometimes be really special,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said in the moments following the Trojans’ 23-14 victory over the Utes.
But the Cardiac Kiffins again needed a game-changing play in the waning minutes. No longer could they coast comfortably to a two-touchdown rout. No longer could they even win by a double-digit margin, as they have so many times over the past decade.
This is USC, this season at least. Just good enough, and that’s a disturbing thought with 10 games remaining on the slate.
It was exhilarating, sure, but it hardly warranted being dubbed special. If USC is scouring for a recipe for success, this isn’t it. Not by a mile.
It shouldn’t have been close. It shouldn’t have been within 10 points.
USC had plenty of chances to win comfortably, but it couldn’t pile it on, not in the second quarter, and not in the second half.
Despite running out to quick 10-0 lead on a six-yard Marc Tyler touchdown run, junior quarterback Matt Barkley threw an interception on the subsequent drive while fielding the snap from the Utah 21-yard line.
Later in the second quarter, redshirt freshman tailback D.J. Morgan fumbled at the Utah 16-yard line before the Utes went on to drive 84 yards for a late touchdown.
There went two scores — a 21-point swing.
USC would turn it over again in the third quarter— a fumble from freshman tight end Xavier Grimble one play after the Trojans stopped the Utes on a fake punt on fourth down.
Fortunately, for the 70,000-plus cardinal-clad fans in attendance, Utah couldn’t capitalize either, failing to score in the final period.
USC had three turnovers. It also had seven penalties for 54 yards. It seemingly did everything in its power to hand Utah a victory.
Talk about failed two-point conversions last week concealed one glaring pimple: USC can’t close — at least not now.
It couldn’t close when it led 10-0.
It couldn’t close when it led 10-7.
It couldn’t close when it led 17-7, either.
It let Utah stick around, and if Coleman Petersen’s 41-yard field goal attempt didn’t hit junior left tackle Matt Kalil’s forearm on the final play, there might have been overtime at the Coliseum on Saturday night.
“Luckily I’m a tall guy,” said the 6-foot-7 Kalil with a grin.
But Kalil’s arm length won’t be enough.
It won’t be enough when the Trojans travel to Tempe, Ariz., to face an Arizona State team, which is now 2-0 after a win over then-No. 21 Missouri.
It won’t be enough when it hosts Heisman Trophy frontrunner Andrew Luck and Stanford on Halloween weekend.
It certainly won’t be enough for a late season road trip to Autzen Stadium, where they haven’t won since 2005.
USC shouldn’t need to stave off a Minnesota team that won just three games a season ago. A Minnesota team that lost 28-21 on Saturday at home to New Mexico State.
It shouldn’t need a blocked field goal to beat a Utah team playing in its first Pac-12 conference game.
It can’t afford to leave so little room for error.
No question, Kiffin and company are facing plenty of obstacles this season and in the coming years with roster deflections related to NCAA sanctions and a postseason ban, but in regard to unforced errors, the onus is on them.
Barkley’s second-quarter interception came as a result of senior fullback Rhett Ellison’s failure to break out of a sideline out route.
Morgan’s fumble came as a result of a botched exchange in the backfield with Barkley.
And Grimble’s fumble just, well, happened.
Through two games, the Trojans’ turnover margin stands at minus-two a year after it finished at plus-four.
For a team which boasted a training camp slogan of “That’s our ball,” it hasn’t seemed to take that message to heart thus far in 2011.
If anything, it’s been too careless.
“Freshmen mistakes showed up,” Kiffin said during the post-game press conference. “And unfortunately you can’t have those if you want to put somebody away.”
For a young team with so little margin for error still, it surely can’t.
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