Prior to the start of the season, a lot of people spoke about how the gap between USC and the rest of the Pac-10 was closing. After USC lost for the fourth time in conference play Saturday, it's safe to say that gap no longer exists.
The USC offense sputtered around the Coliseum field, and the Trojan defense couldn't finish, as USC fell to Arizona 21-17.
"It feels so different," USC head coach Pete Carroll said. "It is so different from where we have been and what we have done. It has been a different feeling. It never really kicked in like we wanted it to. To not be able to win our games at the Coliseum is a big disappointment."
The loss sends USC to one of three lower-tier bowl games, with the Emerald Bowl and the Poinsettia Bowl as the leading possibilities. USC would likely face Boston College in the Emerald Bowl or Utah in the Poinsettia. The Trojans could also play BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl, though that seems like the likely destination for Oregon State.
With the win, Arizona appears to be headed to the Holiday Bowl for the first time since 1998.
"With such a big bowl, the Holiday Bowl, on the line and a finish of anywhere from second to sixth, it was a big thing for us," Mike Stoops said. "The kids understood what was at stake and did what they did all year. We've not wavered from who we are. I don't know if we have the best players, but we are awfully good if we are balanced."
While the bowl situation is muddled, it's pretty clear how USC lost Saturday. The Trojans just couldn't get one last stop.
USC trailed for almost the entire afternoon before Jordan Congdon knocked in a 37-yard field goal to put USC up 17-14. But Arizona responded on its next drive, going 80 yards in 10 plays for the deciding touchdown.
The USC defense had shut down Arizona in the second half, holding them to just 22 yards prior to the decisive drive. After a rough start, Nick Foles found running back Keola Antolin on a screen pass on third-and-10 early in the drive, setting up the late heroics.
"That was a big play," Carroll said.
Seven plays later Juron Criner beat Josh Pinkard deep, and Foles found him for a 36-yard bomb down the sideline, giving Arizona the late lead on an even bigger play.
"We made adjustments and we were stopping them," Pinkard said. "Things were going good until that last play when he caught that ball. It was all working out well. We were stopping them, but one play can change the game."
After the touchdown, USC had a chance to respond, but the Trojan offense failed to gain a single a yard. Arizona sacked Matt Barkley on first down, and then three passes fell incomplete, essentially ending the game and USC's regular season.
Before the drive, Carroll pulled Barkley aside and told him that he had a chance for another memorable moment. That just didn't work out.
"He knew this was a great chance, but he didn't get the opportunity," Carroll said. "(The sack) was exactly what you'd hope they wouldn't do on the first sequence because you're really down. They did a nice job."
The Trojans entered the drive without any timeouts left, but Carroll said that didn't keep USC from running the ball. That just wasn't the plan.
"The four plays they stopped us on were the four plays they stopped us on," he said. "Timeouts wouldn't have mattered there. We wouldn't have done much different."
Barkley completed 20-of-37 pass attempts for a meager 144 yards. He threw a touchdown to Ronald Johnson, but he was also intercepted. Damian Williams caught eight passes for 51 yards, and Allen Bradford led the team with 66 yards rushing before injuring his knee.
Foles completed 22-of-40 passes for 239 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
After the game had ended, USC players hurried out of near-silent locker room, faced with having to learn lessons the hard way- for the fourth time this season.
"There are lessons in all of them. There are lessons to be learned in all the situations. However, that's not the way we want to learn," Carroll said. "I look for the positive in a lot of stuff, but I don't look for the positive in losing."