SOUTH BEND, Ind.—They walked up the north end zone tunnel without screams or tears or expressive faces, quietly trudging forward with the noise of success behind them. From behind a large iron gate, a small group of fans watched USC players pass by after a 41–31 loss at Notre Dame on Saturday. "Fight on, Trojans!" one yelled. The players barely lifted their eyes. At the top of the ramp, Clay Helton, an interim coach for the second time in three seasons, first stopped linebacker Su'a Cravens for a hug, whispering some words into the junior's ear. Helton did the same with sophomore Adoree' Jackson and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, and then everyone retired to the locker room.
Never mind that USC dropped another football game on Saturday and it seemed like an improvement. It's always an improvement when a full-on tire fire is reduced to just a plume of noxious smoke.
No, what was striking was the numbness that had set in. It shouldn't be mistaken for indifference, not with players bouncing on the sideline and sprinting to pick up teammates after diving catches and the Trojans scoring 21 straight points in one stretch to erase a two-touchdown deficit. They cared, when recent events gave them an excuse not to. But the hard fade came nevertheless. USC looked exhausted and exasperated with the night in the balance. And another callous grew over another disappointment, and you wondered how limiting this willful non-feeling is.
It's the pall of Troy: The program of Win Forever, just trying to make it to tomorrow. "We didn't really focus on the other thing that was happening," Cravens said. "The day it happened was unfortunate, we felt sorry, I guess it was chaos on campus. But after that we were to business. That's how you have to be. Chaos has happened a couple times in my career. It's just about moving on to the next week."
When it needed something to push it to vindication on a frosty northwest Indiana night, well, something was clearly missing. There's nothing especially profound about this: USC has players, some real tilt-the-field talent for which coaches might trade vital organs. But enduring instability and a drumbeat of calamity exacts a toll on the mind. And that neutralizes what the body can accomplish.
No one can be blamed for wherever they are on the emotional spectrum. The team's former coach, Steve Sarkisian, was fired six days before the Notre Dame game amid a brushfire of reports about his excessive alcohol consumption. That put USC on its fifth head coach, interim or otherwise, in three seasons. Athletic director Pat Haden, lashed with criticism for the hiring and handling of Sarkisian, required medical attention after feeling lightheaded and falling to a knee on the sideline before Saturday's game. As the team loaded the buses to begin the trip back following the loss, Haden was on a private jet to Los Angeles after an evaluation at a local hospital cleared him, according to the school.
The Trojans might have liked to just play a game, but the week wouldn't stop being terrible before that.
Maybe the only response at that point was a little anesthesia for the soul. Some of these players have come up for air, again and again for years, only to get dunked once more. You can't blame them for turning off whatever permits them to get angry or frustrated with their circumstances. "You switch your mindsets," said redshirt senior defensive tackle Antwaun Woods. "It's football. You have to be able to adjust. Adversity is going to happen. You just move forward."
It just can't be called a survival mechanism, because it won't be enough to survive on.
The third loss in six games to date prompted rationalization; the Trojans haven't lost a Pac-12 South game, so they still have a run in the division in their sights. "We're 3–3, but we're 1–0 in the South," Cravens said. "All we have to do is win." Likewise, they say they will play for the 43-year-old Helton, to bolster his audition for a head gig here or elsewhere. "I think it would be great, personally, if I had a vote," Woods said.
And Helton did well to coach like he had nothing to lose, which he doesn't. He had Jackson on offense and opened up the game plan with flea flickers and receiver-to-receiver passes. The Trojans finished with 590 yards of total offense, the most of any Notre Dame opponent this year. They amassed three plays of 60 yards or more against a program that had surrendered just nine such plays in Brian Kelly's entire tenure.
"We came in and said we're going to fire every bullet," Helton said afterward.
Still, the game ended with a whimper, with USC has been through this before, and not long ago. The very problem is that the Trojans know exactly what to say.
They can mean it. They can believe they mean it. In reality, it all amounts to words strung together in the hope they might hook on to something in the maelstrom.
There is confidence, yes. "We're an excellent team," Cravens said. "We can beat anyone in the country, hands down." But is confidence enough to see things through? There is indeed so much ability here, and hardly anyone to recommend what direction it should follow with any amount of consistency. It's sad, really. So, you couldn't begrudge the players some blank stares and platitudes on Saturday night, as they tried to figure out what the universe had in store for them next.
"Just got to get refocused and be positive," Jackson said. "You never know what life is going to throw at you. Everything's not going to go as planned or expected."
It was just before midnight local time that senior quarterback Cody Kessler and Jackson exited the Notre Dame Stadium north gate side by side, and Kessler slung his right arm around the explosive sophomore. Then Jackson broke off to sign a quick autograph for a waiting fan, before realizing he didn't have a pen handy. He hastened back into the stadium in search of a writing implement, returning to scribble on a receiver's glove. Moments later, as one hellacious week mercifully flipped to the next one, Jackson took pictures with another group, smiling bright in the darkness.
USC lost another football game Saturday night. Life goes on.