Football

USC falls to No. 13 BYU in nailbiter, officially bowl ineligible

The Trojans fought back in the second half but came up just short.

A photo of freshman quarterback Jaxson Dart in a cardinal jersey and gold pants, carrying a football, trying to break a tackle from a BYU defender in a white jersey with blue pants.

A USC true freshman quarterback had just made the second start of his collegiate career. Vavae Malepeai led the team in rushing. The BYU fans in the stands seemingly outnumbered the USC ones — and the home crowd was celebrating their team’s three-point victory, an upset by their unranked squad over a team which owned a spot in the AP Top 25.

That was the scene at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Sept. 14, 2019. With as few as five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter on Saturday at the Coliseum, it seemed as though history was destined to repeat itself, this time in the Trojans’ favor.

But alas, the defining characteristic of USC’s 2021 season has been the fact that history does not repeat itself — and the fact that everything that can possibly go wrong for USC has indeed gone wrong. Such was the case when BYU sophomore running back Tyler Allgeier coughed up the ball on a rushing attempt with his team down three in the fourth quarter, only for a teammate to scoop it up and take it 22 yards to the USC 25-yard line, setting up a go-ahead touchdown.

And such was the case when Jaxson Dart — this year’s version of the true freshman starting quarterback — connected with sophomore receiver Gary Bryant Jr. on a fourth-and-6 with half a minute left and the game on the line, only for Bryant to come up one yard shy of the marker, turning the ball over on downs and icing it for BYU’s 35-31 victory.

“I think [Bryant] was battling through some contact, and sometimes it’s hard to be aware of the sticks in that position. I thought he ran the route well, put himself in a good position to get the first down but just came up a little bit short,” Dart said. “I told the offense we were gonna score on that drive, take the lead and go out and win. Unfortunately that didn’t happen.”

USC’s chance to retake the lead in the final minute of the game was a reality that seemed improbable just a few minutes into the third quarter. An apparent interception by junior cornerback Chris Steele seemed to have the Trojans just outside the red zone, minutes after another interception before the break had helped bring the Trojans within one score.

But everything that can possibly go wrong for USC this season has, indeed, gone wrong. The play was negated by a controversial roughing the passer call on junior linebacker Drake Jackson, and BYU took a 15-point lead less than three minutes later.

“I was frustrated because it was a 14-point swing, in my opinion,” head coach Donte Williams said. “We would have had the ball in good field position and instead the penalty’s called, the turnover’s wiped off and they go down and score a touchdown. So that was a huge play in the ballgame that swayed momentum the other way.”

Nevertheless, USC battled. For the next quarter-and-a-half, USC’s defense looked like the one that belonged to the country’s No. 13 team, and a 15-point lead became eight, then five, and the Trojans eventually found themselves on top.

“We fought, and that’s something to be proud of,” redshirt senior defensive lineman Nick Figueroa said. “Sitting there in the third quarter when we got within four, we got a turnover or whatever it was, just getting on the bench and we’re just excited. Jaxson’s coming over to the defense, getting everyone going. I think we played with pride.”

Along with the noticeable energy, USC’s second-half resurgence was largely a credit to Malepeai. After seeing his usage decrease during the middle of the season, the redshirt senior’s workload increased the last couple weeks. With senior Keaontay Ingram sidelined due to an upper body injury, Malepeai scampered for 82 yards in the second half (99 overall) and a touchdown on Senior Night.

“It felt great, but everything is a team effort,” Malepeai said of his performance. “I’m just proud of the guys … Of course we didn’t get the outcome we wanted, but the way the guys fought today, I can honestly say I’m proud to be their team captain.”

His performance was complemented by a passing attack that saw Dart complete 23 of 35 passes for 248 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions. Sixty-three of those yards came to freshman tight end Lake McRee, USC’s leading receiver on the night.

McRee was the recipient of a successful two-point conversion after USC had taken its first fourth-quarter lead since Oct. 30 against Arizona. Dart danced around in the backfield for what felt like an eternity, and McRee suddenly found himself open toward the back of the end zone. Dart hit him, positioning USC to repeat the aforementioned history.

Instead, though the effort was valiant, the only history USC made on Saturday was an inglorious one: The Trojans are bowl ineligible for the second time in four seasons, and they’ll miss a bowl game for the third time in those four.

That’s largely a byproduct of 14-point, 16-point, 18-point and 29-point home losses that left USC in need of a win this week and next in order to achieve bowl eligibility. But despite the redundancy of those defeats, USC lost in an entirely new fashion on Saturday.

And given the possibility of an upset, given the breaks that simply didn’t go their way, given the way the Trojans seemed to hang around and scratch and claw for the entirety of the second half until they pounced with just a few minutes remaining — perhaps Saturday’s loss was the most crushing of them all.

“I hurt for ‘em tonight,” Williams said. “Some losses, you don’t really hurt. Tonight I wish I could have did maybe one thing more than what I did.”