Even though the Trojans lost, I saw something impressive in the Coliseum Saturday.
It wasn’t Washington quarterback Jake Locker.
It was USC senior kicker Joe Houston.
When USC fans think of Houston, they probably want to march onto the Trojans’ practice field, line up and attempt a field goal right in front of USC coach Lane Kiffin.
The last time USC fans saw Houston, there was 2:34 left in the fourth quarter against Washington last weekend. With USC up 31-29, sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley had just missed a pass to senior tight end Jordan Cameron that would’ve given the Trojans a first down inside the Washington 20-yard line. So, on fourth-and-four, Kiffin sent Houston out to attempt a 40-yard field goal that would give USC a five-point lead, thus forcing Washington to score a touchdown to win.
This is Houston’s first season as a full-time kicker for the Trojans. At the start of the year, Kiffin awarded Houston a scholarship for his dedication and hard work. For Houston, it was a dream come true knowing his hard work had paid off.
But the senior hasn’t performed to his or his coach’s expectations. As he lined up for the 40-yard field goal, Houston was just 2-for-5 kicking the ball between the uprights during the year, but he did make his last kick, a 27-yarder earlier in the quarter to give the Trojans the 31-29 lead.
The ball was snapped, and Houston made clean contact with it. He followed through and looked up at the most important kick of his life.
His heart sank as it trailed off to the right and hit the upright.
Washington got the ball back, converted a fourth-and-11 opportunity and ripped off a 26-yard run before kicking the game-winning field goal as time expired.
As the Huskies danced and shouted on the Coliseum floor, the Trojans sprinted off into the locker room, including Houston, who still had his helmet on.
Instead of making a quick exit while all the reporters were in the press conference room, Houston stuck around. About an hour after the game ended, just about all the players were on the bus when Houston came out of the locker room.
He wasn’t wearing big headphones or walking up the tunnel with his head down. He could’ve sprinted past the reporters like Locker sprinted past USC’s secondary, and nobody would have blamed him. When a reporter asked if he could talk to him, he said, “hold on,” and continued up the ramp. Apparently, he wanted to be left alone and who could fault him for that?
Except then, he put his bags down and stood there like a man knowing the gallows wait for him. He crossed his arms, straightened his back and put a brave look on his face.
The reporters closed in, and for about three minutes, he stood there and answered all questions, almost coming to tears at one point. Here’s a guy who’s never been in the spotlight before and all of the sudden he’s saying he’s “responsible” for USC’s loss.
I don’t agree with his assessment. The defense played awful, and Barkley missed two passes he should have completed that would’ve most likely won the game. What stood out to me was Houston’s character.
To stand in front of a dozen reporters — just an hour after missing the biggest kick of his life — and to relive that moment takes more courage than the Wizard of Oz granted the Cowardly Lion. Some people might say that it’s the athlete’s responsibility to answer questions in the good times and the bad, and for the most part, I agree with that.
But this is different. Houston is not an every-down star player used to media attention and who makes mistakes more often simply because he is on the field more. As a field goal kicker, Houston is almost expected to make every field goal, and many fans don’t even take notice unless those kicks start to miss. That’s a tough way to live.
Imagine if you failed your first midterm or wrecked your parent’s car and then had reporters show up and grill you about it. I know I wouldn’t want a microphone thrust in my face.
Still, Houston stood in there and shared his true feelings. He said he was hurt and felt terrible.
Say what you want about Houston’s kicking abilities. He’s now 2-for-6 and his coach has lost faith in him, opening up his position. Kiffin is giving senior punter Jacob Harfman a chance at kicking field goals this week, and whoever does better will play Saturday.
But don’t question his character. He’s about as mentally tough as they come. His teammates were behind him, chanting his name and encouraging him while he kicked against Harfman in practice Tuesday.
Houston may or may not have lost the game Saturday — that is up for debate. But he won over the respect of at least one reporter.
“Spittin’ Sports” runs every Thursday. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Kenny at email@example.com.