USC Coach Lane Kiffin reacts during the first half of the Trojans'… (Christian Petersen / Getty…)
TEMPE, Ariz. — Like many others before them, the USC Trojans traveled to the desert Saturday night in hopes of discovering themselves.
They are still hopelessly, haplessly lost.
It was their first game in a truly hostile environment, their first game against a credible spread offense, their first chance to objectively measure their progress after four games of controversy and crisis.
PHOTOS: Sun Devils best Trojans in the desert
They are still going steadily, stunningly backward.
The Trojans' 62-41 loss to against Arizona State was epitomized by dueling reactions from a coach whose seat is now hotter than the pavement outside Sun Devil Stadium.
In the first minute of the second half, Lane Kiffin skipped down the sideline pumping his playcard-holding fist after Tre Madden ran untouched for 24 yards to give the Trojans a 21-20 lead.
Exactly 1 minute and 8 seconds later, Kiffin was once again frozen in place, staring befuddled into space after the Sun Devils had stunningly rocked the joint with a long touchdown pass and an interception return for another score.
First, D.J. Foster caught a Taylor Kelly pass on the yellow midfield pitchfork and outran everyone for a 74-yard touchdown. Moments later, USC's Cody Kessler threw a cross-field pass far short of Lee and into the hands of Arizona State's Alden Darby, who returned it 46 yards for another touchdown.
The Sun Devils fans screamed and waved their toy pitchforks. The Trojans wandered around their bench as if looking for a place to hide.
A one-point Trojans lead suddenly became a 13-point Trojans deficit and that was it, that was the game, over and done in 1 minute and 8 seconds.
The remainder of the second half was marked by Trojans desperation, only some of which worked. In one moment, Tre Madden, a running back, actually lofted a fourth-down pass that was easily intercepted, leading to an Arizona State touchdown. The next moment, Madden was scoring on a 48-yard catch-and-run touchdown pass from Kessler.
One moment, the Trojans were recovering an onside kick and marching down to score on Justin Davis' 15-yard touchdown run to close the gap to 48-33 with 9:54 remaining.
The next moment, receiver Marqise Lee was being carted off the field with a knee injury.
In the end, the game was such a blowout, even many of the thrilled Arizona State fans left early. All except the student section, of course, which rocked with chants and gestures toward a once-proud Trojans team that had truly lost its long-ago desert swagger.
So what now? The Trojans' struggles certainly don't bode well for Kiffin's future. Before this game, it seemed that Pat Haden, USC's benevolent athletic director, would not make any coaching moves this fall. But what about now?
What if this season completely falls apart? After watching the Trojans get steamrolled Saturday night, one could easily conclude that this game is the officially beginning of the end of their hopes, and Kiffin's Trojans future.
Thankfully for them, they don't play again until for a dozen days, as their next game is that oddity on Thursday night, Oct. 10, against Arizona at the Coliseum. But unfortunately for them, they already have two losses in five games and have yet to play Notre Dame, Stanford or UCLA. At this rate, even a home game against Utah and a game at Oregon State could be tough.
Perhaps the most appropriate lasting impression the Trojans made on this long night was in the second quarter, when a perfect Kessler pass across the middle bounced off the pads of Lee and landed in the hands of Sun Devil Osahon Irabor at the Trojans 34-yard line.
Before the game, the ESPN producers were giving specific instructions to camera operators to follow Lee after every miss or mistake because of the emphatic way he expresses his displeasure. Lee gave them their shot, and made that impression, when he missed this ball.
He threw up his hands in disgust then, when he reached the sidelines, swung the helmet against a folding chair.
The chair then made like this USC season, and completely collapsed.