TEMPE, Ariz. – When it was over, Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler didn’t have to fend off adoring fans or raise his voice as he conducted an on-camera interview near midfield. In fact, his 6-foot-8, 240-pound frame could have done jumping jacks without hitting anybody.
Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson didn’t have to run off the field to avoid getting engulfed in a sea of maroon and gold, either.
By the time Arizona State had put the finishing touches on its 43-22 dismantling of USC, the goalposts and painted pitchfork on the field at Sun Devil Stadium were never in danger.
Perhaps the biggest revelation in Arizona State’s three-touchdown drubbing of USC wasn’t so much the final score but how both teams responded.
Arizona State players and fans reacted as if it was expected despite the fact the Sun Devils hadn’t beaten the Trojans since 1999, losing 11 straight games.
After the game, USC players and coaches greeted old friends on the opposing team with handshakes, hugs and smiles. Perhaps a team which went 8-5 last year and has gone 14-9 in their last 23 games is so used to losing by now it has forgotten how to at least pretend to be upset by getting blown out.
It’s no secret USC is no longer a player on the national football scene, NCAA sanctions have made sure of that, but no image drove that point home than the scene at Sun Devil Stadium after the game. It was as if Arizona State had just beaten Northern Arizona instead of USC.
In the underrated 1996 film The Late Shift, a dramatization of the rivalry between Jay Leno and David Letterman to see who would be Johnny Carson’s successor as the host of "The Tonight Show," there is a scene towards the end where Letterman is finally offered “The Tonight Show,” the dream job he had been working towards the past 11 years. Letterman, however, turns it down because it had been given to Leno and wasn’t the same anymore. Quite simply, things had changed.
It’s like beating USC these days with Lane Kiffin roaming the sidelines instead of Pete Carroll. Sure it’s still nice to beat the Trojans but everyone has done it so often recently that it’s nothing to rush the field about anymore.
The double doors of the chain linked fence surrounding the field were wide open after the game and maybe a dozen or so Arizona State fans jogged onto the field to celebrate before quickly leaving.
“We can’t throw the ball 50 times, we just can’t, this isn’t 2005,” Kiffin said about his play-calling. “We have to try to fight for balance.”
He’s right. Back in 2005, USC was able to overcome a 21-3 halftime lead by Arizona State to win 38-28. This year, they overcame a 21-6 deficit to take a 22-21 lead only to watch the Sun Devils score the final 22 points of the game.
Kiffin’s seven-minute post-game press conference was nothing but a litany of excuses for a team that was clearly outcoached, outplayed and outclassed.
All week USC had talked about the dirty tactics of Arizona State players, instructing their practice squads to deliver late hits in preparation with Matt Barkley singling out Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfect as the dirtiest player.
In reality it was USC’s No. 7 on defense, T.J. McDonald, who was called for three personal foul penalties. As a team USC was flagged 10 times for 87 yards.
“I don’t know how you coach out of the first two,” Kiffin said of McDonald’s penalties. “When the runner is running at you and you go to tackle him, isn’t it his job to get out of the way? I really don’t know how you coach that unless you tell him to be bad tackler.”
Well, at least Kiffin admitted, albeit facetiously, that he has more to learn about coaching.
What about Barkley who threw two interceptions and lost a fumble, accounting for three of USC’s four turnovers?
“I thought Matt did some good things,” Kiffin said. “The interception (he threw to Burfict) was not his fault. It was a screen play. It was a jail break, and Vontaze made a great play. Never is the guy that’s sitting right there involved in there and it was just a freak play. It’s not really his fault. I thought he made some great throws and did some great things against a really good defense. He didn’t have a lot of time.”
There’s something to be said for supporting your players publicly but after a 21-point loss to an unranked team, there’s no need to defend your safety who committed three personal fouls or commend the performance of your quarterback who turned the ball over three times.
Maybe this is the new reality at USC under Kiffin.
A reality were opposing teams expect to beat USC by three touchdowns. A reality where USC’s head coach smiles and defends the play of a safety who committed three personal fouls and a quarterback who turned over the ball three times. A reality where USC simply isn’t USC anymore.
At least Kiffin was right about one thing. This isn’t 2005.