USC Injects Excitement to End Blasé Contest with UCLA

USC 28, UCLA 7

Malcolm Smith scores on an interception against UCLA

I’m happy with the score . . . and the final play. But that last play, with Matt Barkley throwing long into the end-zone to extend the score, has tongues wagging. Some seem to think that the highly competitive and generally brutal arena of college football should be tempered by sensitivity to opponents when time is running out and the play has been close—especially in a cross-town rivalry as hoary as the one here in Southern California.

Pete Carroll called the right play and Barkley made it happen. The decision needs no defense, but here goes anyway.

First, the USC Trojans have had their share of embarrassments this season. A 47-20 loss to Oregon. Another blowout loss to Stanford, 55-21 (at homecoming). Coach Carroll showed his team how to put their losses behind them and attend to the business at hand.

Second, the big play, whoever makes it, should be an inspiration to viewers rather than cause for recriminations. This should be true no matter when it happens, on either side of the ball. The long throw and end-zone reception was the only really big offensive play of this game, the only moment of excitement in an otherwise blasé contest. It was bigger for occurring so late in the game.

Third, if this had been the game-winning play, no one would be questioning the decision. With the game on the line, playing competitively to the very end would have been more urgent. In this case there was no possibility of losing. USC was certain to win—albeit by a narrower margin—even if Barkley had been sacked. But a team should play competitively until the game is over; and the game isn’t over until the clock runs out.

Fourth, UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel was competitive to the very end. He called a time-out when Barkley took a knee. This set up the possibility for USC to go for the big play. As Neuheisel said in his post-game remarks, “They have every right to throw the ball deep. We’ve got to cover. . . . It’s our job to stop them.”

Fifth, every game is played within a context that takes in past and future games. USC has one more game this season. Executing the big play, with the possibility of confirming their offensive potential, is a psychological asset for Matt Barkley and his team in future contests—including their next meet-up with the Bruins in 2010. This is especially valuable after an otherwise mediocre performance. The scoring-pass attempt was strategic; with little to lose, there was much to gain.

Sixth, USC didn’t “run up the score” in some pointlessly vicious declaration of unsurpassable superiority. This was a low-scoring game. Offense was unimpressive on both sides. USC scored first on an interception that turned into a touchdown, and then again on a drive set up by an interception. The teams racked up 10 punts in the first half.

* * *

Notes:

  1. One post-game commentator—a UCLA fan—agreed that there was nothing “class-less” about the final USC play. But he added that “the score doesn’t really tell the story.” I disagree. The story IS that final play, the only really big play of the game.
  2. UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince was injured during the third quarter, but wanted to stay in the game. He then threw an interception. Coach Neuheisel later said that Prince “was ‘John-Wayne-ing.’ I probably shouldn’t have let him try.” Neuheisel may be a competitive strategist. He may win big games for UCLA in the days ahead. But it’s a mistake to liken him to USC’s Pete Carroll. I’m not sure Neuheisel has enough respect for his players to be worthy of their respect for him.
  3. Today, one of my good friends—an exuberant UCLA fan—challenged me to make a prediction. I projected a USC win by 10 points. I’m now looking forward to a free lunch.
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About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

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