Nov 1, 2014; Pullman, WA, USA; Southern California Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian looks on during a game against the Washington State Cougars during the second half at Martin Stadium. Trojans eat Cougars 44-17. Mandatory Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
After the second loss of the season at the Coliseum, an embarrassing 17-12 stumble against Washington, the USC football program proved it lacks the mental fortitude to be great under Steve Sarkisian.
That feels harsh to say, especially with the dust not yet cleared on a sloppy and off-kilter display. First reactions are often overreactions.
Unfortunately, this is not a first or second reaction. This is a reaction built up over two coaching staffs which feel eerily the same.
There is a pattern to follow and it is not a positive one: The Trojans lose because the Trojans get out coached.
Players will have off nights. It is not often that a quarterback like Cody Kessler puts in a two-interception performance. In fact, it has only happened once in his career before the Washington game.
The difference between good teams and great teams is how off nights are managed.
Ohio State has had plenty of difficulties this season. Yet the Buckeyes find a way to win. Even Pete Carroll teams routinely came out sluggish, only to find something deeper within to get them out of trouble.
Sarkisian coached teams don’t. Just like Lane Kiffin coached teams before him didn’t.
From the first snap against the Huskies it was clear that Kessler was not right. His first pass was a completion to the wrong team. He threw more interceptions in the first quarter than he had in four games prior.
The offensive line struggled in pass protection, making Kessler’s job that much harder. A four-man Washington pass rush was more than enough to sustain pressure, leaving more than enough defenders available to neutralize USC’s weapons at receiver.
With Darreus Rogers sidelined, the situation only got worse as Steven Mitchell sprained his ankle and could not return to action.
But the offense was not without bright spots. Their names were Tre Madden and Ronald Jones II.
Madden gained 123 yards for USC on 17 carries. Jones had 66 on eight carries and got the Coliseum on its feet for the first time all night by leading the Trojans on a touchdown drive to start the fourth quarter.
So what did Sarkisian and offensive coordinator Clay Helton dial up when the game was on the line? More passes.
USC had two drives with the opportunity to take the lead in the fourth quarter. The first, following an enthusiastic defensive stop, featured three Kessler passes for a total of four yards.
The next opportunity for the Trojan offense also followed a defensive stand that had the Coliseum buzzing. Jones and Madden combined for rushes of seven, five, and ten yards to put USC inside the 30-yard line.
Cue the Kessler incompletion on first down. Cue the Kessler sack on third down and manageable. Cue the failed field goal attempt. Cue the final whistle.
“It was an overall team loss tonight and we didn’t get it done. And it comes back to me,” Sarkisian said afterwards.
That is about the only thing Sarkisian got right Thursday night. It does come back to him.
It comes back to Sarkisian to put his players in a position to succeed. It comes to Sarkisian to protect his quarterback from himself. It comes back to Sarkisian to ride the hot hand and stick with what works instead of out thinking himself in an attempt to out think the opposition.
But it also comes back to Kiffin. It comes back to the same old patterns, the same old quotes after the same old losses.
It all comes back to the same old question: Does Sarkisian have what it takes to be great?
And right now, for Sarkisian the answer seems to always come back: No.
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