It took almost 14 months to the day for USC to extract revenge from one of the four opponents it lost to last season. For the Trojans, that moment couldn’t come soon enough.
As sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley knelt the ball to expire the clock and secure a 24-21 advantage over Arizona late in the game Saturday night, a burden was lifted from the Trojans possibly greater in importance than any of the myriad others that remain on their backs.
USC had finally showed that, despite all of the adversity, controversy and change it has dealt with in the past year, it still has the determination and perseverance to progress as a team.
Sure, evidence backing this idea could be pulled from previous games this season — a blowout win against California, a perfect nonconference slate, a hold-on-till-the-last-second victory over Arizona State — but all those things had been done in the previous season under a well-seasoned coaching staff and a full scholarship roster. Nothing was in place to prove the Trojans were moving forward.
Until this weekend.
Although the game finished with only a three-point differential, the Trojans held the lead — and seemingly the ball — for the entire game, controlling the pace of play as they recorded scoring drives of five, seven and nine minutes. USC looked like its old self yet again but with a new twist — the Trojans’ opponent was for once not a Pac-10 cellar-dweller but a nationally ranked team.
The biggest reason behind the improvement was the play in the trenches: Both the offensive and defensive lines — areas of weakness for USC earlier in the season — overwhelmed whatever the Wildcats threw at them, giving Barkley ample time to find open receivers and holding Arizona running back Keola Antolin to only 38 yards rushing.
Compare that to the 225 yards of rushing that the defense surrendered to Washington, and it’s easy to see how far the Trojans have come in just a matter of weeks.
In fact, taking a step back and looking at the four “revenge” games themselves — Washington, Stanford, Oregon and Arizona — will show you some semblance of the learning curve the Trojans have endured this season.
The Huskies, currently 3-6 and sitting in eighth place in the Pac-10, faced USC first and didn’t waste any time in exposing just about every weakness the Trojans had managed to mask in the games prior. Washington put up 536 yards of offense and used a missed field goal from USC senior kicker Joe Houston en route to a last-second 32-31 win and the first loss of USC’s season.
To be fair, the Trojans certainly buckled down for their next game against Stanford but once again were felled more so by themselves than by the opposition. Special teams mistakes, penalties and poor secondary coverage paved a path for the Cardinal to boot another game-winning field goal, despite the late lead that USC held.
Improvement for USC, but not enough.
Although the Trojans lost to their third revenge opponent by the widest margin of any team they faced all season, it’s easy to argue that USC played a complete game for three quarters and simply failed to keep up with the best — and fastest — team in the nation: Oregon. The Trojans’ defense played well enough to keep the team in the game, and the offense used the opportunities they had to put points on the scoreboard (for the most part), going as far as taking a 32-29 lead over the Ducks midway through the third quarter.
But USC had not taken that final step in their progression — finishing games.
USC was by no means perfect against Arizona, but it has finally come full circle in learning once again how to close out ball games. Getting to that point was not an examination of talent, but rather of the Trojans’ maturation and experience. And they passed with flying colors.
It would be easy — instinctive, almost — to roll over and allow the new talents of the Pac-10 to eclipse any glimmer of hope USC brought into this season. The Trojans have no bowl game to play for, and they have a young and limited roster playing for a new coaching staff.
But over the course of the season, and namely across these four revenge games, USC showed that it has the humility and patience to learn from its mistakes and rise to the next challenge — proving so against Arizona on Saturday.
With the way things have looked in the past two games for USC, the Trojans are excited to be on the field winning games, no matter the final goal.
And if they keep it up, soon there will be no “revenge” games left to play in the coming seasons.
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