The moment that USC reclaimed its once-vaunted swagger can be pinpointed exactly to 10 minutes, 32 seconds in the third quarter.
The Trojans were hosting Utah, the last undefeated team in the conference and the Pac-12’s front-runner for a playoff spot. There was little about the Utes that appeared vulnerable, not once allowing a single team to score more than three touchdowns while the offense posted four consecutive 30-plus point outbursts.
And then there was USC, who, it seemed, was as close to rock bottom as a program recently bestowed with a documentary could get. The Trojans had dropped three of their last four. They had fired their coach, Steve Sarkisian, the third man in four years charged with turning the program around, amidst the bizarre – alcohol-related issues, including rumors he was intoxicated on the sidelines in a win over Arizona State – and the innocuous – just being an unremarkable football coach heading a remarkable football program.
But 10:32 struck, and all of the karmic forces rallying themselves against the Trojans appeared to have an abrupt change of heart. It was a third-and-4, and USC led by a comfortable margin of 28-17, though at this point in the season, one in which the Trojans managed a paltry 12 points against Washington, no margin can possibly be comfortable enough.
Cody Kessler dropped back and patiently waited as two linebackers blitzed, opening up the middle for the astonishingly fast Juju Smith-Schuster. Tevin Carter missed his switch as Smith-Schuster ran a drag route across the middle, and the worst possible man to leave wide open in the middle of a football field, Smith-Schuster, was wide open in the middle of a football field. Kessler hit him at the 35-yard-line, but it was at the 43 when Smith-Schuster found his man.
Dominique Hatfield is a 5-foot-10, 175-pound junior from Los Angeles. Evidently Hatfield decided it would be a wise idea to yap at Smith-Schuster throughout the first half. Smith-Schuster is four inches taller and 40 pounds heavier than Hatfield. This was not a wise idea.
At the point in the run where Smith-Schuster crossed the 43 he paused, seeking his target, the guy in white wearing No. 15, and appeared to beckon him on – upon closer inspection, it seems Smith-Schuster was attempting to adjust his downfield blocking, though it’s quite possible Hatfield thought otherwise. Regardless, he took the bait, and on Hatfield came. And to the turf, a good four yards out of bounds, he went, victimized by the stiff-arm from Hell delivered by Smith-Schuster.
USC, of course, would go on to thump Utah 42-24 and Smith-Schuster contributed 143 yards to the effort. If we’re all being honest, this play, while awesome on a number of levels, though not quite Georgia Tech blocking a kick and returning it for a touchdown to beat Florida State as time expires awesome, was probably not among the most impactful. Three of those belong to Cameron Smith, a linebacker who picked off Travis Wilson as many times as he had been intercepted all season (3) and returning one for a touchdown.
But this play transcended a standard football play. This was dripping with a USC swagger we haven’t seen since the Bush-Leinhart-White days. The Trojans have simply been laying down lately. No proud program loses 17-12 to Washington, even if it is being coached by one of the ineptest men in college football.
This play was as symbolic for USC as the Colts’ mindless punt fake, Little Giants-esq blunder was for Indianapolis. This game should have broken the Trojans. A loss would have set them back to 3-4. Imagine that: USC with a losing record in the seventh week of the season, after entering week one in the top 10.
But instead they dropped the No. 1 team in the conference. Instead, they are now looking at a schedule with five winnable games, what with Cal seeming to regress back to its usual mediocrity and UCLA playing some of the most mercurial football in the country.
If USC does win out, it will not make the playoff. But the Trojans will have made their case to maybe, hopefully, possibly, attract a real head football coach. This much, at least, can be known: For one night, we saw the USC we’re used to seeing, and what a wonderful sight it was.