Rick Bowmer
October 29, 2014

LOS ANGELES (AP) Southern California has held a narrow lead in the final moments of a Pac-12 game four times this season.

The Trojans barely hung on twice to win on their opponents' mistakes, and they blew the other two games in excruciating fashion.

Before coach Steve Sarkisian allows his first season back at USC to age him prematurely, he's hoping to figure out why USC (5-3, 4-2) seriously lacks a finishing touch.

''We should be 7-1 and undefeated in conference play,'' Sarkisian said this week. ''I still, in my heart of hearts, believe we should have won those games.''

Sarkisian also realizes that half of the Trojans' eight games this season have been decided in the last minute, and their inability to traverse that tightrope is why they're out of the national rankings and the College Football Playoff picture heading to Washington State (2-6, 1-4) on Saturday.

''It's about developing a culture of a killer instinct ... and I haven't done a good enough job of developing that yet,'' Sarkisian said. ''We obviously found a way to not win those two games. That falls solely on me in getting our team prepared for those moments. I have to do a better job.''

Those two losses were heartbreakers for a coach who hoped to make an immediate splash in Hollywood.

Four weeks ago, USC blew a nine-point lead in the final three minutes and lost to Arizona State on a 46-yard Hail Mary as time expired. Last Saturday, the Trojans gave up a long scoring drive in the final seconds at Utah, capped by a 1-yard TD pass on the penultimate play from scrimmage with 8 seconds left in the Utes' 24-21 victory.

Along with their two last-gasp losses, the Trojans barely survived poor defensive finishes in two victories over highly ranked opponents. USC won 13-10 at Stanford last month only by recovering a fumble with 19 seconds left while the Cardinal were deep in scoring territory, and the Trojans snared a 28-26 win at Arizona three weeks ago on a missed 36-yard field goal at the gun.

All four finishes had a few similarities: The offense got tight, the defense played tentatively and their opponents seemed emboldened by the Trojans' caution. Sarkisian knows he has to break that pattern.

''Sometimes when you get into familiar settings, there can be a sense of maybe it being contagious,'' Sarkisian said. ''It can creep into a young man's mind: `Oh no, here we go again.' That's what we have to eliminate. ... There's going to have to be a game where we finish the way we're capable of finishing to start to shift the thought process there.''

USC's fervent fans have lambasted Sarkisian for conservative play-calling, particularly in the Trojans' last two losses - and Sarkisian doesn't completely disagree.

Although Sarkisian doesn't mimic former coach Lane Kiffin's reliance on bubble screens and other tedious plays that infuriated fans, he also doesn't often trust Cody Kessler and his young receivers to throw aggressively downfield.

''The next time it comes up, we're going to attack it again, and hopefully we call the right stuff, which is the key,'' Sarkisian said. ''I need to be as prepared as I can be to call the exact right plays (and) to have belief in the players to go out and execute it.''

The Trojans refuse to use their meager depth as an excuse for tiring and unraveling late. Still hampered by severe NCAA scholarship restrictions, USC used only 41 scholarship players at Utah.

''Grow up. Do your job,'' linebacker Su'a Cravens said. ''That's all you have to worry about. We haven't been doing that, and that's what has been happening to us in the fourth quarter, why we've been losing games.''

After their always-eventful trip to the Palouse and a visit from high-scoring California, the Trojans wrap the regular season against archrivals UCLA and Notre Dame. They need a strong finish and help to make the Pac-12 title game for the first time.

Sarkisian spends much of his time lately ''trying to dig into different motivational things'' to produce late-game poise in his Trojans, realizing they're probably not done with last-second drama.

''I'm looking forward to the next opportunity to make that happen,'' Sarkisian said. ''Sometimes those scenarios don't come up for a while. We've been faced with quite a few of them, so I'm anticipating one down the road here that we can take advantage of and start to kind of shift the pendulum a little bit.''

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