In the era of NCAA sanctions, the trajectory of the USC football program can always be identified by how they play in the game before Halloween. Around the season’s three-quarters mark, the team’s lack of depth due to scholarship losses becomes increasingly evident.
In former head coach Lane Kiffin’s first year, USC played undefeated and highly ranked Oregon close for most of the game before wilting at the end. This showcased a Trojan squad with the talent to compete, but the inability to string four complete quarters together against an upper-echelon team.
In 2011, the triple-overtime thriller against Stanford signaled a team on the rise, eventually reaching the pinnacle of the Kiffin era with a narrow upset victory over Oregon in Eugene. The final October game of 2012 saw a record-setting performance by then-sophomore wide reciever Marqise Lee against Arizona overshadowed by a loss caused by a plethora of Trojan miscues. This theme was emblematic of last year’s USC team in the dismal second half of last season.
This season, though, has been different. In its final pre-Halloween game, the Trojans didn’t face an elite team or come into the game highly ranked. They played a middling Utah team that typifies mediocrity. Last Saturday, though, wasn’t really about playing the Utes — it was about successfully navigating the team’s perilous roster situation.
The days leading up to Saturday’s game made one thing patently evident: The NCAA’s draconian sanctions against the Trojans are really having an effect. In stark contrast, last week the NCAA levied their punishment against the Miami football program, only taking away nine scholarships over a three-year period.
Compounding the Trojans’ scholarship issues is the rash of injuries currently afflicting the team. As Miami was getting off easy last week, junior linebacker Lamar Dawson suffered a season-ending injury. Redshirt freshman offensive lineman Jordan Simmons and redshirt sophomore running back Taylor Ross also fell prey to the injury bug, unfortunately ending their seasons early.
This signals the biggest issue with the sanctions — the safety of student-athletes. It’s clear the NCAA doesn’t truly care about the health of USC players, as these sanctions have created an atmosphere conducive to injury. Fatigue, the inability to practice properly and inexperienced players being thrust into action all led to a bevy of unnecessary injuries. By Saturday, USC was down to 52 scholarship athletes.
So entering the Utah game, it was only natural to expect the worst. The team had no scholarship tight ends, three healthy scholarship wide receivers and a defense missing three key contributors — certainly not a combination that usually yields success and victory. Making matters more difficult was the fact that the team was forced to replace injured starters with multiple untested true freshman and a motley crew of walk-ons.
The combination of all these debilitating factors could easily have hamstrung the Trojans, with the end result being a loss and fans hearing the party line excuse of “sanctions and injuries.” Though it might be a completely valid excuse, it is not how a hallmark program such as USC should respond to the NCAA’s corruption.
Instead, USC came out Saturday with an inspired, impassioned performance. It wasn’t necessarily pretty, but it was the most emphatic and important victory for the Trojans since the NCAA handed down their penalties. It showed that even in their weakest state, the Trojans would not be mediocre. They will beat pedestrian teams, such as Utah, even with both proverbial hands tied behind their back.
USC’s lone touchdown was symbolic in that it served as a metaphor for the high-wire act the Trojans walk. A banged-up Nelson Agholor turned in a valiant performance, specifically his brilliant touchdown. Balancing on the tightrope of the sideline, barely avoiding the boundary, the sophomore wide receiver was able to fight his way into the end zone, just as the Trojans will fight their way through the sanctions.
Against Utah, the Trojans embodied the tenets interim coach Ed Orgeron lives by. They competed and fought; they played with moxie and determination and made no excuses for their predicament. That is the mark of a true Trojan squad. Redshirt junior safety Dion Bailey’s Herculean effort to come into the game after halftime is the stuff of legend.
What the sanctions intended to do was mire USC in mediocrity. By beating Utah, the Trojans showed they simply wouldn’t be average. This pre-Halloween game was bigger than a mid-afternoon showdown against Utah on the Pac-12 Networks. It was about fighting through the adversity and playing for the Trojan teams of the past and the future. It showed that no matter how hard the NCAA tries, USC will prevail in the end.
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