On June 10, the NCAA sanctions against USC football officially ended.
But truth be told, they didn’t really end until the moment Nelson Agholor swatted down Nebraska’s final Hail Mary throw in Qualcomm Stadium. 2014 was probably the season where the lack of depth induced by the scholarship reductions was the most frustrating.
A new coach had been hired, and he promised at the start of the season that the sanctions would not be used as an excuse. Yet it quickly became clear that the lack of depth was hurting the team, to the point that Steve Sarkisian finally acknowledged the elephant in the room after another humiliating loss to UCLA.
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Starting now, the Sanction Era is officially over, and the Trojans begin their road back to 85 scholarship athletes.
Juniors will decide whether they will follow Leonard Williams or Cody Kessler. The first batch of full recruits in three years – led by Ricky Town and Chuma Edoga – will arrive on campus, and Sark will try to shape his growing personnel into a championship squad while a demanding fanbase looks on.
But as USC looks to the future, it’s important to give one last nod to the athletes who carried the Trojans to that future but will not be a part of it.
Call them the Sanctioned Seniors.
These men, along with last year’s seniors like Devon Kennard, came to USC and bore the brunt of the sanctions. As freshmen, they played without a bowl game. They’ve been crushed in El Paso before claiming victory in Vegas and San Diego.
Over five years, they’ve gone 2-3 against UCLA and Notre Dame, built an overall record of 44-21, third among all Pac-12 teams in that period; and they scored top-5 upsets against the two teams above them, Oregon and Stanford.
They came in following the departure of a beloved coach and were there for the arrival and departure of a controversial replacement. They survived the most turbulent season in program history, during which they won ten games with three head coaches, none of whom would be wearing the headset the following year.
It’s time to give one last nod to the athletes who carried the Trojans to a sanction-less future that they will not be a part of.
Now, as the calendar turns to 2015, we say goodbye to Hayes Pullard, the fifth-year senior linebacker who was there for all five years of chaos, having made his commitment to USC just shortly after Pete Carroll’s departure and just before the sanctions were announced.
After a knee injury forced him to redshirt the 2010 season, he went on to become team captain and the first Trojan in 35 years to lead the team in tackles for three consecutive seasons.
We say goodbye to Andre Heidari, a kicker whose career was a microcosm of the program surrounding him. Some days, he just couldn’t seem to hit the uprights if his life depended on it. His struggles in the 2013 Notre Dame game led to the starting position being reopened.
Then, just a few weeks later, he kicked the game-winning field goal against Stanford, triggering the first field rush at the Coliseum in 14 years. Ten months later, in Palo Alto, he would do it again, forever earning him a place in Trojan lore as “The Lumberjack.”
Staying in the vein of recent victories over Stanford, there’s J.R. Tavai, who had one of the most important plays of the Pac-12 season, though not necessarily for the benefit of the Trojans. Tavai sealed the victory against Stanford this season by ending the Cardinal’s potential game-winning drive with a strip sack.
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Taking advantage of a mismatch in Stanford’s O-Line, Tavai swung around unopposed and blindsided Kevin Hogan, allowing USC to pounce on the fumble and win the game.
Though USC couldn’t turn that victory into the beginning of something bigger, Tavai’s sack was the beginning of the end of Stanford’s conference dominance. The Farm could not replicate the offense of years past, sliding to an eight-win season and leaving Oregon unopposed as the kings of west coast football.
Tavai, meanwhile, would overcome midseason injuries go on to lead the team in sacks with seven on the season, with half of those coming in his last game at the Coliseum against Notre Dame.
Finally, there’s tight end Randall Telfer, a player whose biggest moments came in SC’s biggest upset victories. In 2011, the Trojans did what few teams in recent years have been able to do: defeat Oregon in Autzen Stadium. In that game, Telfer made a red zone TD catch that would end up being SC’s final score of that game before holding on for a 38-35 win.
Two years later, in the Stanford upset, Telfer didn’t get a pass thrown his way, but he did have a moment after the game just as memorable.
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With the fans poured out onto the field, an announcement was made on the PA system calling for the players to report to the locker room. As that announcement was made, Telfer stood in the center of the throng, surrounded by his fellow students, leading them in a roaring chant of “U-S-C! U-S-C! U-S-C!”
That night will undoubtedly be the greatest if not one of the greatest college memories the members of the student section at that game will have ever had.
We’ve all seen athletes pump their fists and yell with elation following a major win when we watch them on TV. To see the same thing happen live, literally inches away from you, is usually the kind of experience that is the exclusive domain of sideline reporters and photographers. On that night, though, thousands of USC students and alumni got to experience it first hand, high-fiving and chanting right next to the Trojans they root for.
It’s not often that you see the Trojans playing the role of the underdog, but on a few occasions over these past five years, that ended up being the case. The Sanctioned Seniors handled the role well, even if it didn’t lead to a Pac-12 championship. After the Las Vegas Bowl, Clay Helton called his team “the epitome of ‘Fight On.'”
For the Class of 2015, that phrase is especially true.