Trojans players said it as they walked off the field.
And Coach Pete Carroll drove the point home when he faced the media after the No. 20 Trojans’ regular season-ending 21-17 defeat by Arizona on Saturday.
“It’s just a different feeling this year,” Carroll lamented.
Is it ever.
A USC program that won at least 11 games in each of the previous seven seasons will not reach 10 in 2009.
Arizona made sure of that when quarterback Nick Foles threw a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to receiver Juron Criner, and the Wildcats defense snuffed out Matt Barkley’s opportunity for a heroic turn before a crowd of 83,753.
The Trojans finished the regular season 8-4 overall and 5-4 in the Pacific 10 Conference.
“That’s not even close to what our expectations are,” senior safety Taylor Mays said. “It’s shocking, but it happened.”
USC’s four Pac-10 losses are its most since 2000, Paul Hackett’s final season as coach.
Since then, the Trojans have known nothing but victorious regular-season finishes under Carroll.
But Arizona’s first win against a Carroll-coached team came three weeks after Stanford humiliated USC at the Coliseum.
“I was on teams that went undefeated and lost one game — and we lost that one game and it felt like somebody died,” said Trojans cornerback Kevin Thomas, a fifth-year senior. “So it’s definitely different.”
USC’s hopes for an eighth straight Bowl Championship Series bowl appearance ended weeks ago. Saturday’s loss knocked the Trojans out of an expected Holiday Bowl bid, which will instead go to Arizona (8-4, 6-3).
USC, which went to the Rose Bowl the previous four seasons, is most likely headed to the Dec. 23 Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego or the Dec. 26 Emerald Bowl in San Francisco.
The Trojans won’t know for sure until today when deals are struck by bowl officials aiming for full stadiums and TV ratings.
This much is certain: It’s indeed a different feeling for everyone affiliated with the USC program. Players who experienced or were drawn to USC by BCS title games might have considered the last three Rose Bowl appearances consolation prizes. Now the Trojans are headed, at best, to a third-tier postseason game.
“Every year I’ve been going to the Rose Bowl,” said safety Will Harris, a fifth-year senior. “So it’s going to feel a little weird.”
It felt that way throughout a season that included Carroll’s decision to start a true freshman at quarterback, a near-fatal weightlifting accident that sidelined tailback Stafon Johnson, a grueling road schedule and historic blowout losses against Oregon and Stanford.
The Trojans’ offense, under the direction of first-year play-caller Jeremy Bates, never consistently clicked.
The defense, which appeared strong in the first half of the season, was in shambles for much of the second.
“We’ve tried to find our way and battle and all that and it hasn’t ever really kicked in like we would have liked to have done,” Carroll said.
USC looked like it might finish on a high note after overcoming a 14-7 halftime deficit against Arizona. Allen Bradford’s short touchdown run in the third quarter and Jordan Congdon’s 37-yard field goal in the fourth gave the Trojans a 17-14 lead with just under six minutes remaining.
But Foles completed two key third-down passes during a drive that he capped with a picture-perfect 36-yard throw to Criner, who beat cornerback Josh Pinkard on a fade route.
“It was going to be a pass, but he was going to run a slant,” Foles said. “We saw man [coverage] and I threw it up and let him make a play.”
USC got the ball with just over three minutes remaining, but Barkley was sacked on first down and three passes fell incomplete.
“It didn’t start out too great and just kind of went downhill from there,” said Barkley, who completed 20 of 37 passes for 144 yards and a touchdown, with one interception.
Barkley was among several players who indicated that the Trojans were unable to rebound with the same emotion they brought to last week’s 28-7 victory over UCLA.
“I don’t know why,” Barkley said. “I don’t know what it is that gets us like that.”
USC has not lost two games in a row since Carroll’s first season in 2001, when the Trojans started 1-4.
They will get the opportunity to keep that streak alive, and possibly finish the season in a positive fashion, though on a stage far less grand than that to which they are accustomed.
Pinkard and center Jeff Byers, for example, are sixth-year seniors, the last remaining players from the team that won the 2005 BCS title game.
“Unfortunately, it’s not a BCS game like the young guys wish for when they sign here,” Pinkard said. “It’s just rough all around.