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|Interim coach Ed Orgeron couldn't be prouder of his Trojans, even in a penalty-riddled defeat to a rival, but positive reinforcement only goes so far at USC.|
Taking over a beaten-down team whose pride and morale had been completely drained three weeks ago, the interim coach gave them a much-needed respite and new life.
He told them to relax, he told them to have fun and he told them to play without a care in the world.
After winning his first game against the Arizona Wildcats, it was a feel-good story for a team that needed to feel good again.
But Saturday's 14-10 loss to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish was a reminder that his time at the helm of the program, much like his title indicates, is only temporary.
USC proved to be an undisciplined team, particularly after being flagged for two false starts and two holding penalties on its final two possessions.
Everybody loves that guy. Who wouldn't love that guy?
The problem is Orgeron's style worked as a short-term breath of fresh air for a team gasping for oxygen. Expecting it to fix the fundamental problems that have plagued this team since fall camp is absurd.
Los Angeles already has seen this script play out. When the Los Angeles Lakers fired coach Mike Brown five games into the season after a 1-4 start, Bernie Bickerstaff took over on an interim basis and essentially let the players run the show, resulting in a 4-1 record over the next five games.
There are still some Lakers fans who think if the team had just kept Bickerstaff instead of hiring Mike D'Antoni, maybe last season would have played out differently. They are probably the same fans who vaulted Orgeron as a front-runner to become USC's new head coach after his 38-31 win over Arizona nine days ago.
The problem is Bickerstaff wasn't going to fix the Lakers' problems over the long term with his laissez-faire style. And neither is Orgeron. Both are fine short-term solutions for teams that need major overhauls moving forward.
USC was an undisciplined team on Saturday. It had 11 penalties for 95 yards and a handful of key drops on third and fourth downs. The mental errors continuously came up during the most crucial moments of the game. USC was flagged for two false starts and a couple of holding penalties on its final two possessions, stalling potential game-winning drives.
"We made some mistakes," Orgeron said. "We didn't do the things we would like to do at a high level, but I'm proud of all my guys, just like my family. They fought. They fought as hard as they possibly can and gave us everything that they can. These are just tremendous young men. I'm proud of them."It wasn't exactly the kind of reaction you would expect from a coach talking about a team with nearly 100 yards in penalties that just lost to its rival. But that's because Orgeron knows his job doesn't depend on wins and losses at this point. As much as he'd love to be a head coach again after his 10-25 tenure with the Ole Miss Rebels, he knows he's not a realistic candidate for the USC job. Whatever remote chance he had hinged on USC running the table and at the very least beating Notre Dame and the UCLA Bruins.
His future will likely find him staying on at USC as an assistant, as he was with Paul Hackett, Pete Carroll and Lane Kiffin. He's a Trojan, and driving home the message of the "Trojan Family" to recruits and his current players is just as important to him right now as wins and losses for a 4-3 team trying to find its way.
"Coach O loves us and he let us know," USC safety Dion Bailey said. "He just instilled the fight in us again. We love Coach O. We did everything in our power to get him this victory, but we just came up a little short."
The win was Notre Dame's first over USC at Notre Dame Stadium since 2001, which also was the last time the Irish had defeated the Trojans in back-to-back seasons. Notre Dame has now beaten USC three of the past four seasons under Irish coach Brian Kelly.
"This one is killing me and I'm trying to hide it," USC quarterback Cody Kessler said. "We wanted this one as a team so bad for this coaching staff. They worked so hard for us and our reward to them is to win games and that's all we can do.
"It sucks that it didn't turn out like we want, but the effort was there. We put everything out there on the field. Coach O told us we played so hard and we have nothing to hold our heads down about."
They were upbeat words for a team that needs positive reinforcement, but it's not exactly the kind of message USC should be getting after a game filled with so many mistakes.
The next step for USC is finding the best man to deliver the right message and turn around the program over the long haul.