For a team that started the season ranked the No. 1 squad in the country, the 2012 USC Trojans’ fall might be unparalleled. And the fiasco reached its climax in El Paso on a windy Monday afternoon.
After a season that saw USC (7-6, 5-4 Pac-12) lose five games for the first time since 2001, the Trojans added a sixth loss, this one to the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (7-7, 5-3 ACC) at the Hyundai Sun Bowl by a final score of 21-7.
The Trojans gained just 205 yards of offense on the day and was unable to find consistency without senior quarterback Matt Barkley, who missed his second straight game with a sprained shoulder. Sophomore quarterback Max Wittek started in his place and was 14-37 for just 107 yards, a touchdown and three untimely interceptions.
“We can’t be 7-6,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said after the game. “Not at ‘SC, and that’s not our expectations and not why we came here … Obviously we have some work to do to get that fixed. We are a young team — we started one senior on offense today — so we got to continue to recruit, continue to get better and obviously coach better.”
The Trojans got off to another slow start, as has been the case in several games this season, as they went a quick three-and-out on their first possession. Sophomore quarter Max Wittek missed junior wide receiver Robert Woods twice on the drive, with the passes sailing over Woods’ head. The Trojans wouldn’t even get a first down of the game until their second drive on a run by junior running back Silas Redd, who ran for 53 yards in the first half.
The game took a strange turn halfway through the first quarter when sophomore kicker Andre Heidari missed a 28-yard field goal wide to the left. The referees initially called the kick good, but reviewed it in the booth and took the points off the board.
The Trojan defense held up its end of the deal for the most part, holding the nation’s premier running game to 136 yards rushing in the first half. The Yellow Jackets were led primarily by senior quarterback Tevin Washington, though redshirt freshman quarterback Vad Lee entered the game in the first half and scored the game’s first points in the second quarter with a short touchdown pass.
Wittek struggled in the first half, throwing for just 58 yards and throwing an interception. Redd got the offense moving towards the end of the half, though, breaking off a 20-yard run through several Georgia Tech defenders. Redd fumbled later on the drive but recovered it after it bounced back into his hands. Soon after, Redd caught a swing pass and, after juggling it dangerously, took it in for a touchdown to tie the game 7-7 at the half.
“Our position coaches did a good job of letting us know there was still plenty of time on the clock and we could still get a quick stop and give the ball back to the offense and potentially tie the game up, ” senior defensive end Wes Horton said.
The second half started poorly for USC, as it was forced to punt on fourth down after receiving the kickoff. Even worse, sophomore defensive back Jamal Golden returned the punt all the way to the USC 1-yard line, where Washington soon took it in on a sneak, giving Tech a 14-7 lead.
USC stalled once again on a pair of drives, with Redd unable to find any running room and Wittek not hitting his star receivers down the field. But with about five minutes left in the third, a Georgia Tech player accidentally touched a USC punt and freshman receiver Nelson Agholor recovered it. The Trojans failed to capitalize, though, as Wittek couldn’t convert on fourth down.
The fourth quarter featured more of the same middling play from USC, and the Yellow Jackets capitalized on a touchdown pass from Washington to senior running back Orwin Smith. Wittek missed more throws on the ensuing possession, giving Georgia Tech a chance to run more time off of the clock.
The Trojans got the ball back with about eight minutes left and after a few plays found themselves at the Georgia Tech 11-yard line. But building on the theme for the day, Wittek failed to convert, getting intercepted in the end zone on a pass to Woods.
“I tried to stay positive throughout the entire game,” said Wittek, who was making just his second career start. “Body language is very essential and if I start putting my head down, what’s my team going to think of me? I felt in rhythm a couple of times, we got a couple of drives moving.”
After the game, Woods announced his intention to enter the 2013 NFL Draft, ending his record-setting career. The Trojans will now enter the 2013 season without the most prolific quarterback in conference history (Barkley) and its most prolific receiver (Woods). But Kiffin is still confident the Trojans will be okay.
“You have to look at yourself first and even though you feel like you were doing the same things you were doing the year before, you have to evaluate everything,” Kiffin said. “You can’t overreact either because you are basically doing the same stuff. Unfortunately, the record wasn’t the same that it was last year, but we’ll sit down and evaluate everything that we’re doing and get back to work.”