TEMPE, Ariz. — Technically, it was a comeback victory in overtime.
Sounds pretty good, right? Add to the lore and put a plaque in Heritage Hall.
Not quite. Don't think for a minute that USC's 44-38 victory over Arizona State in Sun Devil Stadium was anything worthy of praise.
You're not a hero for putting out the fire if you were the one who started it with your own carelessness.
And you don't get credit for pulling out a victory in overtime if you blew a 29-point lead to send it there.
In the end, the only thing that separated this game from USC's previous six misadventures in the Pacific 10 Conference was this time the Trojans actually won.
So you can say goodbye to that five-game losing streak and thoughts of USC's first winless conference season.
But all of the ugly accusations about this program are still around, as loud as ever.
The final 21 minutes of regulation were a complete meltdown, and the Trojans got beat in every phase of the game.
The sad thing is, for 2 1/2 quarters it was some of the best football USC has played all year. The Trojans had the running game firmly established, thanks in large part to yet another strong game by Sultan McCullough (who is having an outstanding season in the midst of all the disappointment), and thanks also to a surprising 43 first-half yards by Chad Pierson. Carson Palmer made the right reads most of the time and threw crisp passes (he was hitting Kareem Kelly at will). And the defense didn't let the Sun Devils get a whiff of the end zone. They were in control, ahead 35-6.
It wasn't just bad plays, it was sequences of bad plays, each more unbelievable than the previous.
First, when all the Trojans needed to do to wrap up the game was run a few plays, punt, get the ball back, run a few more plays, punt, get it back and then head for the buses, they fumbled on three consecutive possessions.
Up next was a stunning drive in which the Trojans had three first downs negated by penalties.
First, McCullough ran 41 yards to the Arizona State 18. Brought back by a flag for holding.
Next, Pierson ran for a first down on third and 10, but that didn't count because the Trojans were called for delay of game.
Pushed back to their own 37-yard line, Palmer connected with Matt Nickels for a 35-yard pass, but Nickels had pushed off and was called for offensive pass interference.
Three times, USC players had done the things necessary to get a first down and all they had to show for it was third and 30.
In addition to all of these miscues, there was an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown by Arizona State and another play when the Sun Devils' backup quarterback eluded three tacklers and found a wide-open receiver for a 45-yard touchdown, plus another long punt return to set up a 32-yard touchdown pass and a two-point conversion to tie the game. The Trojan mistakes continued right down the stretch, ending with Palmer's interception in the final 30 seconds, when USC was moving into field-goal range.
The Trojans got it together in overtime after Arizona State kicked a field goal on the opening drive to take its first lead of the game. The Trojans came back and looked good. Palmer made better decisions, and the defense closed with a flurry to finish off Arizona State's last drive.
So why should one bad stretch offset the rest of the game?
Because it came in the fourth quarter, a time when winning teams are at their best--and a time when the Trojans have been at their worst again and again.
If the Trojans had something going this season, if they were in the midst of a Rose Bowl run, you could simply accept this game as a lucky break, breathe a sigh of relief and move on.
Instead, USC's first conference victory simply served as a reminder of why they lost their first five Pac-10 games.
Six turnovers and 14 penalties for 135 yards are awful statistics, but the type of numbers that are all too familiar for USC fans.
The other thing about this victory is it's a little difficult to know what to make of Arizona State. The Sun Devils do have a winning overall record (5-4). That's more than you can say about two of USC's first three victims this season. And Arizona State's three losses came by a total of 14 points, including a heartbreaking 56-55 double-overtime loss to Pac-10 leader Oregon the previous Saturday.
And what exactly are we to make of Oregon? The Ducks barely squeaked by against the Sun Devils, had a narrow escape at UCLA and then needed overtime to beat Washington State Saturday. The Ducks are very resilient, as the Pac-10's highest-ranked team it would be in the conference's best interest for them to continue to win, but this doesn't bode well for the league's prospects come bowl time.
In that respect, the Trojans fit right in.
In a conference with an increasingly suspect front-runner, the Trojans are a team that's difficult to figure out, even when they win.
Make that, especially when they win.
J.A. Adande can be reached at his e-mail address: email@example.com.