PASADENA, California — Game of inches. You know that old football cliche; USC is living it.
If Bru McCoy doesn't recover an onside kick, or Kedon Slovis doesn't fit a pass through a tight window on fourth down, the Trojans don't win their season opener against Arizona State and there's no undefeated regular season. Ditto a near-interception on the final scoring drive the next week at Arizona, which came quite literally inches from going the Wildcats' way.
Of course, the game of inches idiom fails to account for any outcome on the gridiron reflecting the sum of every snap for 60 minutes. Everything leading up to those dramatic finishes for USC was as important to the result as the thrilling, final possessions, and the Trojans' win at UCLA to cap a perfect "regular" season was no different.
No one score is less important, especially in a game with 81 combined points. The same holds true for those points not scored — like USC's two failed two-point conversion attempts in the second half, which loomed large as the Trojans trailed 38-36 ahead of their final drive.
Likewise, Gary Bryant's 56-yard kickoff return, Slovis' subsequent 35-yard bomb, and Tyler Vaughns' leaping grab set the stage for the latest dramatic finish: A Slovis touchdown pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown, who ran a textbook route to the corner of the end zone and created enough inches between himself and his defender.
Although not exactly like Sam Darnold's pass to Deontay Burnett in the fourth quarter of the 2017 Rose Bowl Game, it came in the same south end zone — and capped the Trojans' first win inside the historic stadium since USC beat Penn State there almost four years ago.
The 103rd Rose Bowl Game set the tone for a 2017 season in which wins over Texas, Utah and Stanford — against whom the Trojans' sealed their last conference title — all came down to the final possession. The 2020 season has a similar feel.
"We've gone through situations like these so many times, I feel like everyone kind of has their cool, and so the experience from those other games, it really helps," Slovis said. "This was probably one of the most difficult situations we've had time-wise, but none of the guys seemed fazed [by] that."
"Definitely just got to stay patient," said safety Talanoa Hufanga. "Time's running out and you have to understand that you have to have confidence. We had confidence in our offense. We just had to get a stop and force a field goal in that last series."
Hufanga — who added to his case for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year with a critical interception of UCLA's Dorian Thompson-Robinson — unintentionally but perfectly underscored the importance of every moment preceding St. Brown's game-winning touchdown reception. Had the Trojans' defense not thwarted the Bruins on fourth down while nursing a lead with 4:12 to go, or held UCLA to a field goal with a third-and-short stop and just 52 seconds remaining, the circumstances of USC's final drive would have been much different.
The Trojans' defense completely flipped the script in the second half after giving up four touchdowns in the first.
"I credit [defensive coordinator] Todd Orlando," USC head coach Clay Helton said. "He came in very calmly at halftime and said to the guys, 'This is what we have to do and these are our adjustments.'"
By virtue of Colorado's loss to Utah earlier in the day, USC was guaranteed a berth in the Pac-12 Championship Game. The cancellation of Washington's regular-season finale at Oregon created an unusual situation in the North in which the Huskies win the division, but USC was guaranteed to host Friday's title game, regardless of the outcome in the Rose Bowl — an announcement the conference made as the Trojans trailed by three touchdowns at halftime.
That isn't to imply Saturday's game didn't matter. USC and UCLA could both be winless, as was the case for another Pac-12 South rivalry game the same weekend, but claiming the Victory Bell would remain of peak importance. But in addition to the crosstown bragging rights, the win means the Trojans are somehow, improbably, in the mix for the College Football Playoff.
Any playoff talk is premature with Friday's championship game still to be played. What's more, another set of cliches much less quantifiable than game of inches dictate the selection of the final four; colloquialisms like "the eye test" and "game control" hardly apply to a team with three combined wins of 10 points.
The pandemic's impact on scheduling adds further uncertainty. Should a hypothetical six-win USC team really garner more consideration than undefeated Cincinnati or Coastal Carolina squads with considerably more games to their credit?
Playoff or no, sitting on the doorstep of a second Pac-12 title in four years after going almost a decade between conference championships is its own milestone in a season that's been nothing if not memorable.
"I knew that if we just had one more opportunity, that they would make something happen," Helton said. "It’s who this team is."
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.