November 27, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

USC falls to Oregon in Pac-12 title game for first loss

Every lucky break, every charmed comeback, every fortuitous twist of fate over this strange and extraordinary season had led USC back to this fraught and familiar place, with the clock ticking away, their backs against the wall, and the ball in Kedon Slovis’ hands.

An entire season of evidence had taught the Trojans to believe. They’d been here so many times before, tap-dancing along the brink of defeat that they’d learned to take comfort in the tension.

“We didn’t have any doubt at all,” wideout Drake London said.

But then, with under three minutes remaining, Slovis tried to throw a pass away. It slipped out of his hands, soaring just short of the sideline, where Oregon cornerback Jamal Hill, by force of physics or perhaps destiny, dragged his foot just inbounds and finally dealt USC the defeat it had for so long avoided.

USC’s undefeated season was soon over, its unhinged and unbelievable pursuit of a Pac-12 title upended by an insurgent Oregon team that refused to bend to fate, dealing the Trojans a 31-24 loss Friday night that will surely continue to resonate in the months that follow.

“There’s a lot of hurt souls in our locker room right now,” USC coach Clay Helton said, “and it’s something that, I know, our kids wanted extremely badly to win a championship. But we came up a play too short today.”

It was a gut-wrenching moment to learn that miracles weren’t a renewable resource. Instead, in a bit of unfortunate irony, it was Oregon that would be showered in confetti on the the Trojans’ home turf. For the second consecutive season, the Ducks were conference champions, even though, in any normal season, they never would have set foot in the building. It was only by virtue of a coronavirus outbreak at Washington that the Ducks, the North Division runners-up, were even invited to the Coliseum on Friday night in pursuit of Pac-12 supremacy.

But it didn’t matter how the Ducks got there, so much as how the more-deserving Trojans couldn’t prove that they belonged. Again, they fell to Oregon in miserable fashion.

Like last season’s 56-24 loss, Slovis saw three passes intercepted. He still managed to rack up 320 yards and two touchdowns. But USC wound up paying for the sophomore quarterback’s slow start.

His mistakes were hardly the only ones made by USC. The Trojans were charged with nine penalties for 98 yards. They nullified long gains and extended Oregon drives.

“It was an emotional game,” safety Isaiah Pola-Mao said. “Things happen.”

What happens from here for USC is unclear. The Trojans presumably could accept an invite to the Alamo Bowl. But as of Friday night, their bowl future was the furthest thing from Helton’s mind.

Oregon tight end DJ Johnson scores a second-quarter touchdown past USC safety Isaiah Pola-Mao on Friday night.

(Harry How / Getty Images)

Even he couldn’t seem to believe how USC had gotten so close, conjured so much magic, just to fall short.

“We put ourselves in position,” Helton said. “Our kids are so close. We’ve made such strides.”

Just like they’d done all season, the Trojans settled in by digging as deep a hole as possible. Slovis threw an interception on his third pass. And then again, on his sixth, leading to a two-touchdown deficit.

The Trojans had spent most of their season scratching and clawing their way out of similar holes. But from early on Friday, it seemed that same magic was missing. Oregon controlled the energy. It controlled the line of scrimmage. It controlled field position.

The momentum went back and forth. One moment, an Oregon corner slipped and a streaking Amon-ra St. Brown caught a 47-yard score. But in the next, a Trojan punt deep in their own territory was tipped.

Still, the Trojans clung to life late, just waiting for that familiar jolt, the one that so often propelled them in the past. For the second time this season, Parker Lewis supplied it with an onside kick, this one into the arms of freshman Bru McCoy.

But USC’s drive lasted just three plays before Slovis was sacked by Kayvon Thibodeaux, who’d spent the night terrorizing the quarterback.

It was a miracle in itself that USC was left one final drive.

“We were fighting for one more possession, and we actually got it,” Helton said. “It’s right where we’ve known to be.”

But as the Trojans trudged to the locker room, it was Oregon that stood jubilant on the Coliseum turf, basking in its good fortune.