By Gary Klein Los Angeles Times
EL PASO, Texas — Most of his USC teammates sprinted to the locker room, cold and also embarrassed by what had just taken place.
Despite the gusts at his back, Trojans center Khaled Holmes lingered for a few moments.
A season that began with USC ranked No. 1 in the nation had just ended ingloriously with yet another defeat.
The Trojans’ 21-7 loss to Georgia Tech on Monday in the wind-whipped Sun Bowl put an apropos finishing touch on USC’s lost season.
“It’s nothing new,” said Holmes, a fifth-year senior. “Similar story to what we had all year.”
And, oh, what a spectacularly confounding year it was.
A talent-laden team that was expected to play for the Bowl Championship Series title lost five of its last six games, finishing with an astounding 7-6 record and several thousand Texas miles removed from the top 25.
Georgia Tech, a team that required a waiver from the NCAA to play in a bowl because of its sub-.500 record, held USC to seven points and 205 yards, both season lows.
Embattled USC coach Lane Kiffin described it as “very disappointing” and “very surprising.” As he did almost weekly throughout the Trojans’ slide, he accepted all the blame.
“We can’t be 7-6,” he said. “Not at ‘SC.”
But the Trojans’ performance Monday will do nothing to quell the roar from fans who bemoaned Athletic Director Pat Haden’s “150 percent” endorsement of Kiffin after the Trojans’ mid-November loss to UCLA.
Asked if he was concerned that the Sun Bowl loss would affect his status as coach, Kiffin said, “No.”
USC’s effort Monday will join the 1992 Freedom Bowl loss to Fresno State, the 1998 Sun Bowl loss to TCU and the 2001 Las Vegas Bowl loss to Utah among the Trojans’ most dreadful bowl performances.
Players were at a loss to explain the team’s collapse this season.
“I never could have imagined that this could happen,” said junior receiver Robert Woods, who announced that he would enter the NFL draft. “But it was a frustrating year and you could see the frustration today, how it ended. It’s been like this all year.”
Receiver Marqise Lee agreed.
“Nobody thought this is how it would end,” he said. “But then again, this is what happened. This is reality.”
The gusty conditions in Sun Bowl stadium, however, were unlike any the Trojans had encountered in a game this season.
Quarterback Max Wittek, starting for the second time in place of injured Matt Barkley, looked shaky. The redshirt freshman completed only 14 of 37 passes for 107 yards and a touchdown, with three interceptions.
Two of the turnovers came in the fourth quarter, ending potential rallies.
“He was rattled the whole game and we knew we had him,” said Georgia Tech cornerback Rod Sweeting, who had one of the interceptions.
Wittek acknowledged that the conditions affected some of his passes, but he did not offer excuses.
“The wind was there for both teams,” he said.
Run-oriented Georgia Tech (7-7) took advantage of the conditions and played opportunistic defense to end a seven-game losing streak in bowl games.
Quarterback Tevin Washington ran for a touchdown and passed for another. His backup, Vad Lee, also hurt the Trojans, passing for a touchdown and gaining 52 of the Yellow Jackets’ 294 yards rushing.
Wittek’s short touchdown pass to running back Silas Redd at the end of the first half tied the score, 7-7, but Jamal Golden’s long punt return set up a short touchdown run by Washington early in the third quarter. Washington’s scoring pass to Orwin Smith early in the fourth proved more than enough.
Last December, the Trojans were optimistically heading into a new year after a 10-2 season.
Now Kiffin, Haden and the Trojans are left to figure out — and fix — what went so wrong.
“Even if we had won this game we would still be very disappointed in our season,” Kiffin said. “It’s well below our standards and we’ll evaluate everything.”