November 30, 2008

Saturday night special for seniors

It wasn't when he walked in. It wasn't when he stretched. It wasn't when he was announced.

In fact, Fili Moala said it wasn't until halftime when he began to think about it.

Saturday would be the last time Moala played football at the Coliseum.

As the Trojans got ready to head back on the field leading Notre Dame 24-0, Moala looked around. The dam in his mind that had blocked out thoughts of the end cracked.

Soon it all came rushing through.

Moala thought about his last trip out of the Coliseum tunnel. He took a deep breath and soaked up the smell.

He closed his eyes and listened to the crowd. He opened his eyes and looked at the grass.

Each time, Moala said he was aware that he only had one half left to enjoy being a USC Trojan in front of his home crowd.

"I started thinking about the last time," Moala said. "Towards the end of the game, I realized that this is my last go-around. I started to remember my first game in the Coliseum.

"It's crazy to be all the way on the other end of it."

There's no doubt Saturday night's 38-3 win over the Fighting Irish had extra meaning for the Trojans' 16 seniors on the roster.

"This was a really terrific night for us to send our seniors out. It was really the dedication of the week for everyone in the program - players, coaches, trainers and everybody," USC head coach Pete Carroll said. "The focus was to make sure these guys had a great celebration on their way out of the Coliseum."

On the night of their final game at the Coliseum, seniors were making big plays all over the field.

Cornerback Cary Harris intercepted Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen on the third play of the game. Rey Maualuga tipped a Clausen pass into Kaluka Maiava's hands. Brian Cushing flew to the ball.

Kyle Moore got a sack. Moala got in on two - teaming up with Clay Matthews for one.

Patrick Turner caught a touchdown pass, and Jeff Byers helped open up running lanes and protecting Mark Sanchez from the Notre Dame defense.

"This means a lot to me to come out and finish my five-year career here like this," Matthews said. "For all of our seniors, to beat a rival like Notre Dame, it means a lot to us."

Usually after a Trojan home game, players tend not to stay on the field all that long, working their way politely through fans and media on their way to the locker room.

Saturday, USC football administrative assistant Terrel Ray had to repeatedly ask players like Maiava to head into the locker room.

"I want to stay out here and soak it all in," Maiava said. "This is the best place, the Coliseum. It's sad that all good things have to come to an end, but it's been a fun four years."

In the locker room after the game, Carroll said the Trojans will have serious work to do to replace so many contributors - particularly on defense.

"It's a tremendous loss and an enormous transition," he said. "But, it's the same things as it was last year and the year before that and the year before that. We always lose great players. The question becomes 'Can you replace them?' We'll do the best we can."

But before the Trojans get to work replacing their seniors, they recognized them first.

Prior to the game, the seniors were announced individually, each running onto the field. Then, when it came time for the Coliseum public address announcer to award the player of the game, the honor went to the entire senior class.

On the sideline, senior kicker David Buehler and senior punter Greg Woidneck celebrated with a high five.

Even they knew, Saturday was their night.

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