Five years ago I sat watching Patrick Turner and Mark Sanchez kneeling on the Rose Bowl turf, silent as Texas celebrated. From my perspective in the nosebleeds of the west stands they were pretty much the last USC players visible in the throng of streamers and burnt orange. They were both remarkably still, one knee down and one hand propped on a helmet. I remember thinking: These guys are going to lead us to another national championship. You just watched the single greatest football game you’ve ever seen, and it took maybe the greatest singular performance you’ll ever see. It’ll come again.
I still believe that. I still believe that the seniors who stayed – not just the ones who were slated to start or at least contribute in a major way but also the ones who had played the support role for so long and so often thanklessly unrecognized – would be champions.
This now goes against very obvious evidence to the contrary.
I think I knew Oregon was going to win. I think I even knew it would be by several touchdowns. That’s the rational part of me. The irrational part of me, the part that makes up well over ninety-nine percent of my being… that part said that 400 miles to drive on game day is nothing compared to the victory, the glory. Both parts were correct; it’s just that one was actually correct and the other still thinks the O’Dowd-Barkley fumbled snap cost USC the game, all the while ignoring Oregon literally running around in the Coliseum swerving back and forth as the Trojan secondary listened to ominous encores of Yakety-Sax and somehow the Ducks are lining up to snap the ball again even though they’re on defense and it’s a TV timeout and my god, is this the future?
I thought that several times during the game: is this really the future? Oregon’s offense has been documented; nobody was surprised at the outcome. Still: seeing it in person was a thing of beauty and pleasure, like watching apex predators doing their thing on the Discovery Channel. Wildebeest and seals don’t have to go to Eugene next year, though. I envy their demises in a totally pathetic and self-pitying way. Stanford’s win last year was also a thing of beauty: power running, play action, everything the Cardinal did involved kicking the shit out of us on every down in a brutal, pre-1989 USSR-putting-down-insurrections-in-Eastern-Europe kind of way. Stanford did not have USC looking so lost, though. Powerless, sure. Frustrtated without a doubt. But lost? Like we were playing an entirely different game with a different set of rules? Oregon made USC’s tackling look accidental, like they were sort of running into us and saying “Hey, good job man. Nice tackle. Thought I was going for six for sure,” and all the while T.J. McDonald didn’t even know the ball had been snapped and holy fuck there they go again.
I can admire that kind of dominance, but I wonder at the implications. I did not think much of Oregon’s skill players outside of LaMichael James and maybe Kenjon Barner, but this was a faceless wheel of destruction that required faceless cogs and sprockets to run the machine, and not Home Depot cogs and sprockets because this is a recession after all but literally stuff cobbled together out of wire and twist ties and pen caps, the kind of material you expected the federal government to use to build houses post-Katrina. The realization that this offense was different from the triple option, the Fun ‘n Gun, the spread, etc. was surreal at times. Those offenses were prolific, but they did not change the fundamental principles of football: time of possession meant something, and if you could hold the ball long enough you’d have a chance. Oregon is first in the nation in scoring and something like 115th in time of possession. Let that sink in for a bit.
It’s all a bit… rude. Running that offense with players I don’t even know the name of, and I live for this shit. I don’t even know where Darron Thomas prepped. I can tell what quarter it is by the Rorschach blots at Matt Barkley’s armpits because I’ve studied, and watching Oregon was new. New is unpleasant and foul and always disconcerting in college football. New usually means you’re stuck in the stands as some other team storms the field. New means we are old, and we are. And we were direct snapping to Marc Tyler half the game.
(We were also calling for bubble toss sweeps on 3-and-6 which is so old it’s almost recursively old, like we went back to all the plays ever called by every despised coach in the history of the game and condensed it: the trips left bubble screen when you need twelve yards, the run play on third and long, the designed 4 yard hitch on 3rd-and-6. It was an act of modernist despair and post-modern ennui, and I don’t know what any of that means because I was reading elaborate porn essays by David Foster Wallace in my English classes instead of shit about modernity and post-. It was certainly a new kind of futility and in certain respects it had a satisfying circuitousness to it, sort of like that song from the Lion King except by the end everybody but the hyenas are dead of dysentery.)
(Do sub-Saharan animals get dysentery?)
This got me to thinking. Oregon is the number one team in the country so there shouldn’t be too much shame in kinda-sorta giving them 3/4 of a game. I know I certainly don’t feel shame. Instead I wondered how long it’s going to be before I can go back to relying on USC football games as a rock solid source of love and pride and giddy affection rather than the current situation, which is probably best described as being filled with queasy apprehension and is described even better by 30 Rock via Alec Baldwin as “a guaranteed disaster, like eating a burrito before sex.”
Watching USC play has become a bit complicated for me.* My favorite game at the Coliseum was USC’s 70-17 win over Arkansas in 2005. That game had it all, and by all I mean utter destruction of the opponent. I am not one for tearful remembrances of close calls and hard fought wins unless they involve higher than normal levels of schadenfreude. A perfect game would be an eclipse of Georgia Tech’s 94-year old 222-0 victory over Cumberland, which was probably some kind of beauty school. I love 49-0 games. They make me happy in ways I would rather not diagnose. I’d like that back, consistently, and with vigor and anger and just a little bit of vanity. I don’t think it’s too much to ask, but I also know it’s hard to do. USC’s 21 point loss to Oregon is a very clear indication that my team is far away. Now the NCAA gets to crack its knuckles and decide whether it wants to add to my spiritual despair in the form of rejecting or accepting USC’s appeals. I must now face the knowledge that though redemption is just one Arizona State win away, it is in fact not really there at all until forces beyond my control – NCAA, the immediate senility of Chip Kelly and all his assistants – say so, and if history is any indication I will be shit faced drunk on New Year’s day, wondering what might have been. (Obviously.)
But it gets even more complicated, because the groundswell of the press and the people say it is so. Apparently the mystique of the Coliseum is gone. Besides the fact that Arash Markazi is viewed – however unfair it might be – as a Judas by the USC faithful, this article is extremely confused. The mystique of the Coliseum wasn’t the perceived invincibility of the Trojans on their own field, it was how the hell USC fans managed to get over their collective yawning for a few years and turn the place into a semblance of home field advantage. In that respect the mystique is gone: attendance figures are falling and will continue to fall until USC is ranked in the top ten with consistency. But then there’s this: that was the loudest Coliseum crowd I’ve heard in a long time. Ignoring the epic failures of the spirit squad’s contemptible mouse squeaks for chanting, it was a pretty good night crowd-wise. When USC exploded at the beginning of the second half and took the lead I overcame my usual attempts at civility and screamed “Choke! Choke!” at the Oregon fans behind me, then pointed at the silent away crowd in the southeastern end of the Coliseum and screamed, “It’s OK, they’re choking too!” This is very rare, and like all prodigies it foreshadowed events of great happenstance and stature, i.e. silent, glowering hatred and despair when the Ducks decided they were dangerously close to seriously messing up their points per game. Still, I was proud of the 88,000 or so fans who managed to show up and, even more surprisingly, wear red. There is still some shard of that pride left. And it was pretty cool to see the student section forget its apathy and rock out, even if it was to the way overplayed instrumental of Seven Nation Army.
None of that’s enough, though. This senior class will not have a national championship ring and it makes me sad. More often than I’d like to admit I think about scenarios where Reggie Bush comes back and redeems himself by mopping hallways and working at soup kitchens and holding PATs and then torching the rest of the Pac-10, but those are fantasy in more ways than just the obvious ones. Reggie Bush didn’t just leave, and he didn’t just transfer or declare early. He turned his back on us.
I wanted so badly for Stanley Havili to touch the crystal football, and then cradle it and stiff arm Rick Neuheisel. He deserved that. I’m not sure what kind of coda this season will have, and what it will mean to a guy like Havili. I know it isn’t the ending I wished for him, and that was with all my heart for a guy who stayed despite it all. I wished that for D.J. Shoemate, Havili’s former backup, even after he transferred to Connecticut. I wish the same for everyone who has a 2004 national championship ring: that they’ll never have to hear it wasn’t real. They know it was. I know it was. And I know it’ll come again.*
Patrick Turner had a solid but unremarkable career at USC. Mark Sanchez made my head dizzy with possibilities; he’s now the starting QB for the Jets and I don’t hold it against him. I think about what would have been had he remained for his senior year. Would it have stemmed the tide? Sanctions were coming no matter what. That 2009 defense was going to get exposed. Pete Carroll would’ve left anyway (right?), but losing his senior All-America quarterback instead of having a freshman All-America quarterback returning wouldn’t have helped. #1 and #6 played well and when they didn’t play well they played for USC, which means that so long as your name is not R. Jay Soward I will love you despite your drops, picks and false starts. #1 and #6 are still kneeling somewhere in the Arroyo Seco representing so much potential and promise and now all of that is memories and dreams, and that’s all they get to do now that my tangible connection to them is gone. Still, it’s a beautiful picture. I think about it idly, when my day turns to in-between moments and it makes me oddly happy, thinking about a 22-year old me thinking about the future.
I’ve always loved Bo Schembechler’s “Those Who Stay Will Be Champions.” It was such a Big Ten, 1960s steely-eyed thing to say. It was arrogant, too. Had Michigan succumbed to mediocrity Bo would’ve been fired to headlines reading, “Those Who Leave Will Make Us Champions”, which is the same thing but a lot more mean spirited. History loves a winner, though. I don’t know when I’ll again have that feeling in the Coliseum watching my team run up and down the field, dictating to my Oregon or Stanford counterpart in the southeast nosebleeds a contract for the better part of their souls as they watch their beloved heroes get absolutely dominated by USC. I definitely don’t know when we’re going to The Dance again. But I know this: I don’t have to watch Chip Kelly’s offense again for one more year, it’s four days ’til Saturday and I like our chances. If entropy powers one half of the universe, optimism powers the other.
*I’d rather not explain how, when and why.