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EUGENE, Ore. – There was nothing left for USC to do, at this point, except throw up their hands.

It started Saturday night with one Bo Nix pass to Troy Franklin, the Oregon receiver spinning away from USC’s Max Williams and dodging through the arms of fellow safety Calen Bullock, taking a grab for 77 yards on just the second play of the game. It continued with a crossing route to the Ducks’ Troy Franklin the very next drive, such open space in the Trojans’ secondary that Franklin sped for an 84-yard score, a couple NFL scouts in the press box laughing at the disaster unfolding on the Autzen Stadium turf below them.

And after the third massive bomb of the first half, cornerback Domani Jackson given not an ounce of safety help as Franklin got behind him for a 63-yard grab, Jackson held his palms out to the heavens.

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He walked over to safety Max Williams, engaging in a visibly-heated discussion for a couple minutes. Seeming completely, and utterly, lost.

“Those are the plays we wish we had back,” defensive end Solomon Byrd said postgame.

There’s been all too many of those plays this season, the plays USC receiver Tahj Washington said postgame with which they “eliminate themselves,” breaks head coach Lincoln Riley has preached for weeks could have drastically shifted USC’s fortunes by going their way. And they drowned USC’s season for a final time in Eugene Saturday night, an affair that felt almost anticlimactic, scouts all gone by the fourth quarter of a 36-27 loss that emphatically ended any hopes at a shot in the Pac-12 title game.

An eerie sense of finality had settled in by the final buzzer, players walking off the field at Autzen not with tears or slouching but jaws set, resigned to fate of a season that had taken a left turn somewhere before Arizona State in September and never reversed course. Byrd, one of the stalwart leaders on this Trojans’ defense, posted a sobering message on Twitter shortly after the game’s end: “Sorry Nahmi,” referring to his daughter, “I hope daddy did enough.”

“I just hope I did enough,” Byrd said postgame, “to take care of my family.”

Hope vanished in front of tens of thousands at Autzen licking their chops, smelling blood from a limping defensive unit, doomed by the same defensive questions that had plagued them since fall camp and culminated in a messy divorce with coordinator Alex Grinch. And in the first half, there was no shred of visible change, in demeanor or success of scheme, with Brian Odom and Shaun Nua as interim co-coordinators and without Grinch patrolling the sidelines.

This defense was dealt a bad hand already on Saturday: down starting nickelback Jaylin Smith, down starting linebacker Eric Gentry, down cornerbacks Ceyair Wright and Jacobe Covington and Zion Branch. Riley, postgame, said some members of his starting secondary were “probably about 70% right now.”

“I don’t think that’s an excuse,” Byrd said postgame.

Whatever rotation of secondary fill-ins – little-used Tre’Quon Fegans and Prophet Brown, even freshman wide receiver Makai Lemon starting the second half at cornerback in a return to high school two-way days – Oregon’s Heisman-candidate QB Bo Nix cut them up, ending the first quarter an almost-unfathomable 2-of-3 for 162 yards and finishing with four touchdowns.

At the end of a long and methodical third-quarter opening drive, Nix rolled right to find Franklin again, so open in the end zone he would’ve reasonably had the space to check the time before getting tackled. Safety Bullock, the defender closest to him, again held his hand out for a moment – searching for an explanation that didn’t exist, a USC team consistently befallen by an inability to execute simple defensive principles.

USC entered the second half down just 22-14, though, thanks to quarterback Caleb Williams’ most unhinged performance yet. He operated like a mad scientist in a collapsing pocket, weaving and circling and testing the limits of comprehension of successful quarterbacking, extending enough plays to lead a couple touchdown drives and keep the game close as Oregon shot itself in the foot on multiple occasions with penalties. Down by a couple scores after that Franklin touchdown, though, Williams had a miscommunication with running back Austin Jones on a handoff, the ball squeaking free and Ducks falling on it to completely deflate any USC momentum.


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