And now, Pat Haden, USC turns its lonely eyes toward you.
The focus of the Trojans’ immediate future will be off the field, not on it. The only thing left to look forward to at this point is the athletic director’s eventual choice of a new head coach.
A 2013 season that began disintegrating with horrid performances against Washington State and Arizona State and the inevitable firing of Lane Kiffin somehow managed to perk up momentarily under fun-meister Ed Orgeron.
But on a chilly Saturday night in South Bend, Ind., the Trojans' season quickly plunged back into the depths of mediocrity.
The cold reality is that right now, at this sad point in its history, USC isn’t really USC anymore.
Trojans’ offensive linemen aren’t supposed to get overpowered the way they were by Stephon Tuitt and friends at Notre Dame. USC’s secondary isn’t supposed to be more leaky than your average TMZ report. And USC's overall composure isn’t supposed to wilt the way it did in a penalty-infested fourth quarter in Indiana.
The crumbling of the foundation under Kiffin cannot be immediately repaired by Orgeron’s gifts of cookies and loud music in the locker room. The cracks run too deep. The ensuing holes are about to grow too wide.
The scary part of what happened in South Bend is that Notre Dame is a decent team, but hardly a great one. The Irish already had lost to two opponents ranked outside the Top 10 in Michigan and Oklahoma. And then, with nine minutes left to play in the third quarter on Saturday, they lost starting quarterback Tommy Rees to injury.
When backup Andrew Hendrix entered the game, it was clear coach Brian Kelly’s team wouldn’t score again. All USC had to do was cobble together one touchdown drive, or two field goals, in the final 24 minutes. But the Trojans couldn’t do it and lost, 14-10.
When USC quarterback Cody Kessler wasn’t under fierce pressure, he played like the redshirt freshman he is, appearing tentative after his one interception and limiting himself to check down passes instead of confidently throwing downfield.
It didn’t help that star receiver Marqise Lee, continuing his strange, injury-marred season, dropped a potential touchdown pass in the second quarter, or that slumping kicker Andre Heidari missed two makeable field goals that would have won the game. Or that Silas Redd, the night’s most effective tailback, didn’t seem to get as many carries as he should have in the second half.
As tough as it might be to admit, what USC really needs now is a total makeover. It requires a strong, proven leader to come in and start rebuilding what should be one of the most impressive programs in college football. Just check out the recent recruiting charts. It has reached a point now where the seemingly desperate Trojans are chasing three-star recruits, instead of the four- and five-star prospects who used to flock to the school.
It’s funny, but I remember back in the Paul Hackett years when it became popular to say that roster limitations and the new balance in the then Pac-10 meant that USC could no longer be a perennial national power. I recall flying back from South Bend with Haden, who was then a Notre Dame color commentator, and we both agreed that theory was nonsense.
“The only thing USC needs is the right head coach and it can be a bigtime national power again,” Haden said to me at the time. I agreed. Not long after that, Pete Carroll proved us right.
Don’t look now, Pat, but this is basically the same situation.
As much as everyone seems to like and admire Orgeron, he doesn’t have the name or the stature that is required to lead the Trojans. The right guy is out there, though. The coach with a winning résumé who can come in, revitalize the fan base and be the powerful, new face of the program is available.
All Haden has to do is find him.
It will be intriguing to watch him try, and that’s good. Because halfway through another sad, disappointing season, that’s about all there is to cling to at USC.