LOS ANGELES -- Lane Kiffin was searching for something, anything to hang his hat on as he sat outside of USC's locker room Saturday night.
"As I watched the end of the game, and I know Trojans fans won't be happy with the outcome as none of us are," Kiffin said. "I point to the second to last play of the game … the game is over and we can't win and the effort that Robert played with in his 80th snap of the game speaks a lot of these kids."
The comment was intended to illustrate how hard the Trojans fought until the final play of their 62-51 loss to Oregon at the Coliseum, but it seemed to only illustrate how far USC has fallen this season.
A season that began with national championship aspirations has apparently devolved into one where you pat your players on the back for not quitting at the end of a blowout loss.
This was not the role USC was supposed to be playing in November.
They weren't supposed to be would-be spoilers to teams competing for a national championship. They weren't supposed to be two-score underdogs at home to conference rivals. And they weren't supposed to be a pesky speed bump on Oregon's race toward an undefeated season.
Of course, that's exactly how this season has unraveled for the Trojans.
USC's dream season has completely gone off the rails and how far it continues to go downhill will likely have repercussions that will reverberate long after 2012 is over.
After all, there's just falling short of your goals disappointment and finishing a season with five losses and spending Christmas in El Paso disappointment.
You can deal with the former; people normally lose their jobs with the latter.
That's the situation Kiffin faces now after USC's loss to Oregon at the Coliseum, giving the Trojans their third loss of the season just three days into November.
Instead of living up to all their preseason hype, USC is now on the verge of being the first team since Notre Dame in 1967 to be a preseason No. 1 and completely fall out of the rankings before the end of the season.
USC's loss to Oregon was far from a surprise, but the manner in which Trojans fans nervously braced for a potential blowout at home hasn't been seen around these parts since Paul Hackett was the coach. Oregon was actually an 8.5-point favorite coming into the game, the biggest road favorites at the Coliseum in 15 years.
Oregon didn't just beat USC on Saturday, the Ducks rewrote the record books in doing so. Oregon's 62 points were the most ever against USC and its nine touchdowns were also an opponent record. Oregon's 730 total yards were the most ever gained on USC and Oregon running back Kenjon Barner set the USC opponent record for most rushing yards with 321 in 38 carries with five touchdowns.
This was the kind of game Kiffin couldn't afford to lose. If it was a stretch to say Kiffin was on the hot seat after road losses to Stanford and Arizona, it would be foolish not to consider him on it now.
Kiffin was given the benefit of the doubt his first two seasons after USC was hit with severe sanctions that included a two-year bowl ban and the loss of 30 scholarships over three years. While the bowl ban is in USC's rearview mirror, the scholarship reductions have only begun to take a toll on the team, and Kiffin won't have Matt Barkley to lean on next season.
Last season Kiffin talked about the clouds hanging over the program disappearing, but as he sat among his players after the game, it was clear many of them still linger. The clouds of playing a season without a shot at a bowl are gone, but the clouds of a bad defense, bad penalties and bad losses are still as ominous as ever.
As great as USC's offense has looked over the past two weeks, their defense has been historically bad, giving up over 600 yards to both Arizona and Oregon and playing both games as if they had never seen a spread offense before.
The defense's collapse will likely mean at least one Kiffin will be thrown under the bus at the end of the season. Lane's 72-year-old father, Monte, was known as a defensive guru in the NFL, but it's clear his schemes don't transfer as well to the college game where his talented players look lost and completely out of place at times.
Lane Kiffin, who has allowed his father and Ed Orgeron to handle the defense, seemed as lost as his defensive players when looking for answers on that side of the ball.
"If you have back-to-back games like that with over 600 yards we have to look at what we're doing, obviously," Kiffin said. "We have to figure that out. I don't have that answer for you or else I would have tried to fix it during the game."
Despite giving up 62 points and 730 yards, while scoring 52 points and gaining 615 yards, Kiffin says he still believed the game came down to USC's offense.
"We shot ourselves in the foot," Kiffin said. "The game comes down to three offensive possessions. We kick a field goal early, we get no points on the interception and again at the end of the first half in the red zone. Obviously that could have been a big difference there … that's 18 points."
That's right, Kiffin's solution to giving up 62 points was finding a way to score 70.
Kiffin told his team Friday night that Saturday's game against Oregon would be like a heavyweight title fight.
"There would be huge blows dealt throughout the day," Kiffin said. "I talked to these guys at length that we got to make those plays and get back to the sidelines, sit down, take a deep breath in between rounds and go back and do it again."
If Kiffin isn't able to turn USC's season around and salvage at least a respectable finish, he may be the one suffering the biggest knockout at the end of the season.