|Utah lines up for a last-second field goal that would've tied the game. (Getty Images)|
LOS ANGELES -- Football is supposed to be a simple game.
Inches. That's what the movies will tell you football comes down to. Offense, defense and special teams. Most pundits will remind you each phase is worth a third of the game.
John Baxter was not a math major -- the USC special teams' coach has a physical education degree and a masters in higher education -- but he'll challenge you on both these points. It's a game not of inches, but yards. Special teams isn't a third but a fifth.
The fuzzy math might not make sense to some but on Saturday at the L.A. Coliseum, each were part of the equation as the Trojans beat Utah on a last second field goal block to win the first ever Pac-12 conference game 23-14.
"Special teams is one out of every five teams in football," Baxter said. "It's 20 percent of the game. Anybody that tells you it's a third of the game is crazy."
Though Baxter's words might make sense to some, crazy and questionable calls were all over the place.
Down 17-14, Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn found DeVante Christopher for a 10 yard gain on 4th down with under a minute left to keep the Utes' hopes for a win or tie alive. Officials initially ruled him short as the crowd of 73, 821 celebrated.
Then the play was reviewed. First down.
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As the crowd cheered fight on, the players came back out onto the field to play on.
Scrambling around on the next play, Wynn fired a pass in the direction of a wide receiver running a wheel route along the sidelines but former walk-on cornerback Tony Burnett was flagged for pass interference, putting the ball at the 24 yard line and 11 seconds on the game clock.
"Down there at the end, 11 seconds, no timeouts, do you run one more play or do you not?" Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "I don't think you have a chance to clock it. You take a shot at the end zone, you risk a sack or a turnover. We thought we had a very makeable field goal at 42 yards."
After a bit of confusion, Utes kicker Coleman Petersen trotted out to tie the game. Crowd roaring in the background, the snap was good but the kick was low.
"I'm lucky I'm a tall guy and I jumped up and blocked it," 6-foot-7, 295-pound USC offensive tackle Matt Kalil said. "It hit my forearm so it didn't even get over my hand."
Even the master of last second wins, LSU's lucky Les Miles, had to be impressed with what happened next. From the forearm of Kalil, the ball took one bounce and right into the hands of cornerback Torin Haris, who last week sealed USC's victory over Minnesota with a game-ending interception.
"I didn't break stride," Harris said. "It came right to me, it was the perfect play."
Harris returned the blocked kick 68-yards for a touchdown as the Trojans' bench -- used to having heart attacks at the end of games -- jumped up and down. While Harris celebrated with his teammates to sounds of Conquest, confusion reigned.
Officials called an unsportsmanlike-conduct on the USC bench for running onto the field. The points were off the board but the clock had expired and it appeared the Trojans had won 17-14.
"I was trying to follow what was going on with the refs," quarterback Matt Barkley said. "The defense won this game for us, no doubt about it."
Defense. Special teams. No matter how they did it, a win -- even the first in Pac-12 conference history -- was a win.
"I'm excited we finished that way," Lane Kiffin said, possibly to the chagrin of the USC fans at the Coliseum. "The energy in the locker room and the sideline, that energy and emotion pull a team together. Wins like this can be really special. I'm proud of our players. It's not an easy thing to do but I'm actually glad with the way it ended."
The way it ended though, was up for interpretation. For a conference that made a point to retool their officiating after taking heaps of criticism, the Pac-12 sure seemed a lot like the bumbling Pac-10 following the game.
Over a half hour after players and coaches had given their post-game press conferences, rumors circulated that the league office was reviewing the ending of the game. On the field, officials had ruled Harris' return a touchdown but took the points off the board due to the new unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty.
Not so fast said the Pac-12.
"The new Unsportsmanlike Conduct rule is Rule 9, Section 2, Article 1," officiating consultant Mike Pereira said in a statement. "Fouls by players are administered as either live ball or dead ball fouls depending on when they occur. The rule does not apply to substitutes. All Unsportsmanlike Conduct fouls by substitutes are enforced as dead ball fouls.
"Since the game was over, the penalty could not be enforced and the referee stated it was declined by rule. The officials did rule it a touchdown making the final score 23-14."
With the Coliseum empty, there were no cheers for the change except in Las Vegas, where the Trojans were favored by 8.5 points. Call it the blocked kick cover or call it crazy, but the win remains in the USC record books.
"I'm happy for our players and it's really fun to win," Baxter said. "It's so fun to win."
The ending of the game overshadowed its significance for both the conference and Utah. There wasn't just a stage for the first ever Pac-12 conference game, they had a Coliseum and a national television audience. In front of both, the Utes showed they were no longer BCS-busters but a BCS-caliber team despite falling short.
"There's no moral victory here," said offensive tackle John Cullen. "We don't look at it as we wanted to see if we can play SC to 17-14. We want to beat SC. We wanted to come out here and show these guys what we're all about. We showed them we can fight."
"We never had a situation where we felt overmatched or overwhelmed in any way shape or form," Whittingham said. "That's a talented football team from top to bottom. They have as much talent on the team as any in the country, maybe more."
A new, confusing, era of Pac-12 football kicked off Saturday. The team with more talent won.
Seems like a simple equation but, in college football, things rarely are.