Grinding Gears: Let’s just enjoy rest of football season

Eric He | Daily Trojan

When UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen found a wide open Jordan Lasley in the end zone for his third touchdown of the night on Saturday, I groaned.

Not because it cut USC’s lead to just 5 points with plenty of time remaining in the fourth quarter, but because I realized that, in the likely scenario of USC hanging on to win, I would be writing the same column that I had written essentially all season long — how the football team has been good enough to win most of its games, but performs poorly enough to warrant criticism. This is why the Trojans are on the outside looking in on the playoff.

On Saturday, the theme continued. USC, ranked No. 11, was victorious but never really pulled away from an unranked UCLA team fighting to just be bowl eligible. The Trojans didn’t really take advantage of the worst run defense in the Pac-12, racking up just 153 yards when UCLA’s opponents had been averaging 302 rushing yards per game. And USC’s secondary was porous, allowing Rosen to go off for 421 yards in the air, completing 32 of 52 passes. Lasley, who finished with 204 yards, had nearly more receiving yards than the entire USC receiving corps, which recorded just 264 as a unit.

“I don’t think any game is perfect, but our kids did what was needed to be done to win a hard-fought ball game,” head coach Clay Helton said.

Rinse, wash, repeat. The only thing missing in the postgame presser was a “control our own destiny” quote.

So, in the spirit of not regurgitating another downtrodden Monday reaction column and reminding myself why I even have this column, it’s important to touch on the simple fact that we should appreciate what we are watching, that we sports pundits who critique and rip apart players and pretend to be smarter than the coaches need to not forget why we signed up for this life in the first place.

We would be nothing without the atmosphere that sports creates — the storylines, the thrill of covering a big game or the drama leading up to a big moment late in a game. And USC’s season, for better or for worse, has had it all.

Case in point: Saturday night. National television. Primetime. USC vs. UCLA. Sam Darnold vs. Josh Rosen. 82,407 people packing the Coliseum. Any sports fan would love to be in the stadium. And we were treated to a good game, with both Darnold and Rosen showing off why they are the two best quarterback talents in college football — Darnold with his scrambling ability and improvisational skills and Rosen with his laser, NFL-ready arm. Perhaps in 20 years, after both have had successful professional careers, we’ll look back at Saturday and think, “Remember the time we were fortunate enough to watch Darnold and Rosen play each other in college?”

But we don’t think that way, at least not right now. After the game, Rosen was asked about UCLA’s red zone problems, about whether he agreed with his coach’s decision (RIP, Jim Mora) to kick a field goal instead of going for it on fourth down when a drive stalled in the USC red zone in the fourth quarter. Darnold was questioned about why he didn’t throw the ball away before halftime instead of running and being tackled inbounds as time expired, costing the Trojans at least 3 points.

To be clear, these are legitimate questions to ask. But sometimes, when we get deep into the analysis, when we alleged sports experts decide to point out Darnold’s percentage completion in the red zone at home in the third quarter of a night game when his team is trailing, we lose track of the big picture, of why we watch sports in the first place.

We don’t watch sports to break down stats — at least I don’t. I watch for the memorable moments. Moments like redshirt sophomore long-snapper Jake Olson getting to play. Moments like Darnold leading a frantic late-game comeback to beat Texas in front of a sellout crowd at the Coliseum. Moments like redshirt junior cornerback Ajene Harris tackling Utah quarterback Troy Williams short of the goal line to save the game. I’ll even enjoy watching players like Rosen or Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate work their magic against USC, because I appreciate greatness and don’t take it for granted.

Unfortunately, I’ve strayed away from that this season, which is partially my own doing, but also because the Trojans have been objectively underwhelming almost every single Saturday.

Still, that’s not an excuse to ignore why we show up to work every single week. We don’t show up to the press box to rip Sam Darnold. We show up because every game, we might witness something special, something exciting, something we have never seen before. USC will have two more games in its 2017 campaign. That’s two more games to — instead of sulk and complain about where USC’s season ended up — soak in, experience and realize just how lucky we are to be sports fans.

Eric He is a junior majoring in journalism. He is also the associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Grinding Gears,” ran Mondays.