Friday, September 26, 2008
The Belly of the Upset
It always hits hard.
The No. 1 ranked USC Trojans lost on the road to the Oregon State Beavers by a score of 27-21 Thursday night, two weeks after dismantling Ohio State so thoroughly that it seemed almost unfathomable that they could actually be beaten in a college football game. Pundits said that this was Pete Carroll's best team and that they would run the table to Miami. Deadspin mocked the Beavers' chances at victory and on PTI the only question was whether or not the Trojans would top 50 points (Tony said no, Le Batard said yes). The game seemed like such a mere formality that I forgot it was on until it suddenly hit me and I flicked to ESPN about mid-way through the second quarter. I guess you can imagine my surprise when I realized that THE TROJANS WERE DOWN 14-0!
OSU scored again right before the half TO GO UP 21-0! The Trojans fought back, of course, and still had a chance to win the game when they lined up for an onside kick with a little over a minute to play. The onside kick was not recovered by Southern Cal, and my whole night was officially ruined. But while I'm definitely disappointed that my city's amateur-professional football team lost, I can't find it in myself to really criticize them. How do you explain the nature of the upset in college fooball?
Four of USC's last five losses have come to teams that they, in theory, should never have lost to: last night; two years ago against this same Oregon State program in the same setting and against UCLA at the Rose Bowl (to lose their spot in the BCS Championship Game); and last year at home to Stanford. Since they typically annihilate the really good teams that they play, these losses to such lesser teams seem inexplicable and inexcusable. But the reasons for these defeats are impalpable. How much of it has to do with the idea that the Trojans overlooked an inferior opponent, and were both underprepared and lacking the proper fire? How much of it had to do with the thought that the USC players didn't know how to respond to having the underdog take the fight right at them, the proverbial schoolyard bully stunned at having the little guy walk up one day and slug him in the face?
And how much of it had to do with the fact that, on any given day or night, anybody can beat anybody, in any sport? That last truth, mixed with USC's undeniable success over the last seven years, makes it impossible for me to rip them.
But it still makes me feel down when they lose. Poor Carroll, a great football coach and even better man, becomes so humble and despondent after every (rare) defeat. Witnessing Carroll talk to reporters after last night's game was like watching a sad little four-year-old give an interview after he just spilled his milk and cookies. Furthermore, the USC campus is about 20 minutes from my house. It's about 20 minutes away from everybody in L.A.'s house. It's smack dab in the inner-city, in the "hood," as they say. Unless you attend/used to attend UCLA, how can you live in Los Angeles and not root for SC? The Bruins suck and we don't have an NFL team; the Trojans are our football heroes.
Oh, and just one more thing: Is it really "just a game?" I don't just mean college football, but team sports in general. Technically speaking, it is, but as fans we tend to watch these contests as if their outcomes will determine life and death. This is especially true in NCAA gridiron action, where each and every game is crucial. If it really were "just a game," I would have had a much happier ending to my Thursday night.