It ended the only way it could have, on a bizarre, blown-call of a fumble recovery touchdown in double overtime that left one team screaming and throwing helmets in disgust and the other team shrieking and squealing with joy.
A wildly implausible finish to an even wilder, more improbable day.
But let’s get one thing straight before we go any further:
The better team won.
Arizona State had too much Jake Plummer, too much Terry Battle and too much overall offense. And it earned that wonderfully entertaining 48-35 victory over USC at Sun Devil Stadium on the kind of Saturday afternoon that could only make you fall in love with college football all over again.
“This,” Trojans coach John Robinson said, “was a great place to be today.”
And it was. Unless you were a diehard USC fan.
The Trojans played their cardinal-and-gold hearts out throughout this pulsating four-hour marathon. But in the end, they lost because their punchless offense let down their gallant defense.
Arizona State (7-0) was firing cannons. USC (4-3) only had popguns. And when was the last time you remember a Trojans team without a great skill player offensively? Maybe, oh, 1950-something?
And yet, when it was over, when you reviewed all the crazy things that transpired and all the remarkable effort expended before a record crowd of 74,947, you really couldn’t knock any of the players.
You could only knock the officials.
In a game with Rose Bowl, and maybe even national championship implications, this group of officials headed by referee Jim Fogltance made two of the worst calls in recent memory.
First, they gave USC’s Chris Miller a gift of a 29-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown pass on a ball TV replays proved he dropped, or never even had. Then, in the second overtime, they allowed that final, game-winning 85-yard touchdown by Courtney Jackson, calling it a fumble recovery when it was clearly an incomplete shovel pass thrown by Trojans quarterback Brad Otton.
Thankfully, the two calls, or noncalls, offset each other. The Zebras giveth, and they taketh away.
And Jackson, the redshirt freshman free safety, was in the middle of both of them, covering Miller on his “Immaculate Deception” TD, and picking up the non-fumble and running it into the end zone on the final play of this long, emotionally draining afternoon.
“I looked at the ref,” Jackson said, “he gave me a look like he was saying, ‘I didn’t blow the whistle,’ so I ran. I thought it was a pass, but either way, I was going to pick up the ball and just run.”
Otton was so angry at the officials’ non-call he fired his helmet into the turf in disgust. He could have had the same reaction toward his hands-of-stone receivers.
Miller dropped one potential TD pass, (besides the phantom scoring throw he failed to handle). Billy Miller dropped another one. Shoot, if Cheryl Miller had been here, she could have dropped one, too.
These Trojans have no go-to receiver. And nothing even close to a big-play tailback.
The more you watch them, the more you wonder why they don’t use Chad Morton, the little scatback whose lone appearance at the position this season against Oregon State provided the only electric moments for a USC tailback so far.
The few times Morton got his hands on the ball Saturday came when he returned punts, and his 31-yard and 22-yard returns were among the only exciting plays his team managed offensively.
You want to know how bad it was for the Trojans? Their most effective player on offense in Arizona was Jim Wren. The punter.
So why don’t they at least give Morton, their fastest player, a shot on an occasional pitch play? Why not spot him here and there to juice up an offense that played much of this game as if it were slogging its way through the nearby desert?
“I can’t use Morton because we don’t have another corner,” said Robinson, who utilized the team’s best two-way player in his nickel defense for much of the day. “He’s got to play defense for us first.”
Maybe. But a quick injection of his sprinter’s speed sure would help this sluggish offense.
At this point, anything would. When the Trojans aren’t busy dropping passes, they’re jumping offsides or drifting off in illegal motion.
They were penalized 12 times for 92 yards Saturday. Those are the kind of numbers that usually take you from the Rose Bowl to the Poulan Weed-Eater Bowl.
It’s too bad because many USC players dispensed extraordinary efforts against the Sun Devils. From frosh linebacker Chris Claiborne, whose 20 tackles were the most for any Trojan in seven years, to R. Jay Soward, another freshman, whose winding, juking 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the fourth period was one of the prettiest runs anyone could remember.
“Everybody out there gave everything they had,” Robinson said.
It really did seem that way. It’s just that USC didn’t have enough on one side of the ball.
Arizona State had Plummer, “The Snake.” And for the second consecutive week against an L.A. school, he proved to be something more than the garden variety.
“He’s one of the greatest competitors I’ve ever seen,” Robinson said. “He’s like Joe Montana. Yeah, he’s too small to be drafted high in the NFL. Just like Montana was.”
Plummer came off the floor from 28-7 a week ago Saturday. This time he wiped out a 14-0 deficit early and a 28-21 USC lead late. It helped that Battle and Co. could rush for 266 yards to USC’s puny 90. And that the Sun Devils were able to spend most of the day playing against an exhausted Trojans defense, while ASU’s stayed fresh and rested on this hot October afternoon.
Maybe Ohio State will prove more of a test in Pasadena on New Year’s Day. Plummer and the Sun Devils against Orlando Pace and the Buckeyes.
That could be a great matchup.
But sorry, there’s no way it can be much better than the one played here Saturday.
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Steve Bisheff Orange County Register
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