University of Southern California (USC) quarterback Cody Kessler took the first snap of the game, patiently waited in the pocket, and threw a long one down-field intended for a streaking Marqise Lee. The ball was slightly overthrown, and the Trojan receiver wasn't able to reel it in.
Standing in the sixth row in the Student Section at the Coliseum, I was suddenly engulfed by cheers and applause. "There we go, Kiffin!" one cardinal-and-gold clad fan yelled. "Atta boy, Kessler!" another shouted.
Our quarterback had just failed to complete yet another pass. So why were we so happy?
Come back in time with me for a moment. It's 10:54 p.m. on September 7, 2013. Amidst chants of "Fire Kiffin", an angry and frustrated Jerry Feng (that's me) is hurriedly climbing the stairs toward the exits, trying to get out of the Coliseum before the game clock hits zero. The USC Trojans had just failed to win their first home game of the season against the unranked Washington State (WSU) Cougars, and Jerry didn't want to stay and watch the upset unfold.
USC's offense had looked … Well, it was awful. Our head coach seemed to have only prepared the team for three plays during the offseason: Bubble screens, HB dives, and punts. It was like we were trying to prove a point to our international students, that, yes, players do in fact use their feet in American Football.
Possession after possession, we struggled to gain yards and move up the field. Fans booed the team mercilessly after every error. The pressure on the Trojans quickly surged to an all-time high. Then we caught what I like to call the Tony Romo disease: our offense began to wilt under the pressure. Instead of playing to win, we began playing not to lose.
Our quarterbacks simply refused to throw the football down-field, like they were scared that every pass they threw would either be incomplete, tipped, and/or intercepted. Instead, we ran the ball. A lot. USC Tailback Tre Madden carried the ball a whopping 32 times during the game (in comparison, Washington State HB Marcus Mason had only 11 carries). There was a possession where we had the ball on 3rd down and 17. I remember thinking, "Finally, Kessler has to pass it here." then feeling awestruck when he dropped back and handed it off (once again) to poor Tre Madden, who was promptly clobbered by multiple monstrous WSU linemen about 12 yards short of the first down line.
(Fact: our longest reception of the night was for eight yards. No wonder we had trouble scoring.)
Mental toughness. That's what all sports fans really want from their teams. We don't expect to have the most talented and skilled players and coaches every year. Instead, we just want to root for a group of people who we know we can go to war with, individuals who will always give it their all and never back down from pressure and adversity. When our basketball players miss consecutive shots, we still want them to attack the rim and shoot with confidence. When our baseball players strike out, we still want them to swing the next time they're at the plate. And when our quarterback is struggling, we still want him to hold his head high and continue throwing. We're Trojans, fearless warriors who go out there and play our game, no matter what. We fight on.
The game against Washington State scared us. Our team caught a horrible case of The Tony Romo Disease, and we weren't sure if we could bounce back from it. Were we going to play like that for the rest of the year? Forget winning the National Championship this year … Could we even win another game? Would our team be resilient enough to bounce back strongly after such a bad showing?
A week later, I stood under the blazing hot sun at the Coliseum with 62,005 other fans, anxiously waiting for our team to answer the questions and show the world what they were made of.
As soon as Kessler flung the ball high into the air, we knew.
And we cheered.
Jerry Feng is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Southern California. He writes subjective sports stories because he believes that articles without opinions and biases are boring. He also loves Cherry Coke. Follow him on Twitter @Fenglosophy.