Perhaps it’s easiest to digest Saturday’s 36-39 loss at Arizona as a game of “runs,” or segments of time in which one team dominated play. Arizona jumped out in front with a 10-0 lead, USC stormed back to score 28 of the game’s next 31 points and the Wildcats responded with 26 unanswered points before USC’s unsuccessful comeback attempt.
During his Sunday conference call with the media, USC coach Lane Kiffin lamented his team’s uneven play.
“There were so many ways to win the game,” Kiffin said. “Obviously, with less penalties and less turnovers.”
Reiterating his stance in the immediate aftermath of the game, Kiffin did not blame lack of preparation or desire to win.
“We do the hard things — they practice very hard, they prepare really well,” Kiffin said. “The easy things are the decision-making on the penalties. It definitely cost us again.”
When pressed to offer an explanation for USC’s string of underwhelming second-half performances, Kiffin could only credit Arizona’s coaching staff.
“They coach and they have players on scholarship, too,” Kiffin said. “Every drive is not going to go for 80 yards. You’re going to have some series where you don’t score and have to punt the ball. You just don’t want to turn it over.”
Two particular plays stuck out during the course of the game: an overthrown pass to junior wide receiver Robert Woods that appeared ticketed for a touchdown when the cornerback covering Woods tripped, and a first-quarter pass interference penalty on sophomore wide receiver Marqise Lee that the referees later rescinded.
The missed connection to Woods was a play senior quarterback Matt Barkley scripted after he noticed the cornerback had been playing Woods too aggressively earlier in the game.
“We put a double move on their corner, who jumped the post route earlier,” Kiffin said. “We weren’t able to connect on it, but Robert would have been able to walk into the end zone.”
At the time, USC was up by 15 points in the third quarter, and a touchdown strike might have staked the Trojans to an insurmountable 22-point lead.
Lee’s phantom pass interference penalty occurred in the first quarter, when Barkley threw a pass into the end zone that the stellar wideout was unable to snare because an Arizona cornerback draped an arm on his shoulder.
Two penalty flags were thrown on the play, and USC anticipated earning the 15-yard penalty. Unfortunately for the Trojans, the call was overruled by another official.
“Two different officials threw flags,” Kiffin said. “They said that one of the officials came in and said he was grabbing Marqise, but he did not twist Marqise, therefore he overruled the two other officials.”
The referee’s explanation didn’t satisfy Kiffin, but he refused to comment further.
“I’m not going to comment on that anymore for obvious reasons,” Kiffin said.
Pac-12 rules forbid coaches from criticizing officiating.
Many also scrutinized Kiffin’s refusal to spike the ball during USC’s last offensive series in order to stop the clock. With less than a minute remaining in the game and no timeouts left, USC ran just five plays.
Kiffin based his decision on the flow of the game and the fact that USC picked up first downs on its first three plays in the final series. Since the clock stops after each first down as officials move the chains and resumes when the ball’s placed, Kiffin reasoned that, so long as the Trojans snapped the ball immediately after it was placed, not much time would elapse before running the next play.
“Normally, in the two-minute drill, you’re at a point where you’re not making first downs,” Kiffin said. “We had three straight plays where we made first downs. If you can get lined up, you wind up really not wasting any time.”
If given the opportunity to replay the last offensive series, however, Kiffin admitted that he might have clocked the ball after the third play.
“In slow motion, after a lot of time, I would’ve done everything the same until the second-to-last play,” Kiffin said. “We called a double-move to Marqise off of the same play we had just run. I would’ve clocked that one if we could do it again — and that’s not because of the time saved, that’s really more about giving Marqise a rest because he had just run a couple of plays in a row and was obviously a little bit winded.”
When asked whether Barkley had any input into clocking the ball, Kiffin affirmed that it’s the coach’s duty to make such decisions.
“No, that’s all on me,” Kiffin said. “I don’t know if a coach has ever given the quarterback the ability to do that. Because the quarterback has a lot of people chasing him around, he really doesn’t have a good idea of the time situation.”
Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez — a lightning rod for controversy in the past — came under fire following the game for allowing quarterback Matt Scott to complete a fourth-quarter offensive series during which he suffered a vicious hit to the head on an eight-yard scramble that placed the ball at USC’s nine-yard line with 7:13 remaining.
Scott was later seen vomiting on Arizona’s sidelines, a common symptom of a concussion in which a player’s inner ear — responsible for balance — is shaken.
The dual-threat quarterback somehow side-stepped a thorough examination on the sideline following the hit, even though Arizona took a timeout. Scott returned to the field and finished the final three plays of the scoring drive, which gave Arizona an 11-point lead.
Scott was unavailable to the media following the game, and various media outlets are already speculating that he might not play at UCLA on Saturday.
It has yet to be determined what the NCAA’s response will be to Rodriguez’s decision to keep Scott in for the duration of that series.