No. 5 USC entered Friday night’s contest against No. 16 Washington State in Pullman with a perfect record, national championship aspirations and a chance at proving it was the undeniable king of the Pac-12.
It left with its first loss, its odds at the College Football Playoff shrunken considerably and its reign on the conference in question.
In front of a raucous crowd of over 33,000 at Martin Stadium that poured onto the field after the final whistle, the Trojans struggled to find their game. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold, with a ravaged offensive line protecting him, was not his usual self, and a late fourth-quarter flash was not enough.
In fact, it was a mistake by Darnold, with USC down a field goal in the final minutes that ended the game. He made a weak attempt to toss the football ahead to avoid a sack, but it wound up a fumble and a recovery by Washington State.
On this night, it was Washington State’s time to shine. Tickets, even standing room only, were sold out for this game. Before kickoff, the public address announcer hyped up the crowd by boasting the game was being broadcast on national television.
And on the big stage, it was Pullman’s Cougars who bested Hollywood’s Trojans, 30-27. It snapped USC’s 13-game win streak dating back to last season, its first loss in more than a calendar year.
“We’ve got a bunch of hurt kids in that locker room right now,” head coach Clay Helton said. “It’s been a while since we’ve felt this, and it hurts.”
Redshirt senior safety Chris Hawkins even became emotional.
“I cried, honestly, in the locker room,” he said. “It hurt.”
With time winding down in the fourth, the Cougars marched downfield thanks to a 35-yard run by running back Jamal Morrow. A 32-yard field goal by Erik Powell served as the eventual game-winner.
It came after Darnold, who had been struggling all night long, found a connection with redshirt freshman wide receiver Tyler Vaughns to tie the game. On 4th-and-13 at the 42-yard line, Darnold found the receiver in traffic for the conversion. And on the next play, he hit Vaughns against to set up first-and-goal. He finally punched in a two-yard touchdown run to even the score with five minutes left in regulation.
But he didn’t have enough in the tank for another two-minute drill a la Texas, though everyone, including Darnold himself. expected him to pull another rabbit out of his hat.
“I thought it was automatic points,” Hawkins said. “One of the best quarterbacks in the country. Whether it be 3 or 7 [points], I thought we were going to score regardless.”
The Cougars pulled ahead in the fourth quarter on a masterful drive by Falk, who converted several third downs and a fourth down and finally found Morrow on a shovel pass for a 23-yard score to put Washington State in front 27-20.
Falk finished with 340 yards on 34-of-51 passing, outplaying Darnold, who was 15-of-29 for 164 yards. Washington State finished 8-of-18 on third downs, while USC only converted two of their 11 third-downs attempts.
“It ends up costing us a lot of plays defensively,” Helton said.
Falk was also effective in making adjustments.
“There were times when we would change something and he would change something back,” junior linebacker Cameron Smith said. “Pretty smart guy.”
The two teams traded field goals in the third quarter, with neither settling into an offensive flow. There were punts, penalties, reviews and stoppages as the game grinded to a halt and the teams entered the fourth quarter tied 20-20.
In contrast, USC’s offense looked sharp to start the game, as Darnold marched the team down on a 10-play, 75-yard drive that ended in a touchdown. It was the Trojans’ most efficient drive of the half, and it ended with a four-yard touchdown run by Darnold after he had scampered for nine yards on the previous play to set up first-and-goal.
But then the offense sputtered, and the injuries started piling up. The Trojans already came into the game banged up. USC was without redshirt senior wide receiver Steven Mitchell Jr. (groin) and redshirt junior guard Toa Lobendahn (staph infection) in addition to junior linebacker Porter Gustin (toe/bicep). Then, late in the first quarter, junior offensive tackle Chuma Edoga appeared to hurt his left leg and was replaced by freshman offensive tackle Andrew Vorhees. And senior offensive guard Viane Talamaivao appeared to hurt his shoulder early in the second quarter. USC was down to two healthy starting offensive lineman for the remainder of the game.
Injuries, though, serve as nothing but a pity call.
“Nobody’s going to have any sympathy for us,” Hawkins said. “We’re injured across the board. Nobody’s going to say anything about that.”
Darnold added that it came down to simply performing.
“We knew what they were going to do,” he said. “It was just a matter of executing at that point, and they out-executed us.”
The offensive line issues didn’t help Darnold, who couldn’t find a rhythm and threw several questionable balls and one interception in the first half. He was bailed out only by an explosive 86-yard touchdown run by junior running back Ronald Jones II that put the Trojans ahead 14-10 in the second quarter. It was the longest touchdown run by a USC running back since 1996.
Still, USC looked to have all the momentum when, on Washington State’s ensuing possession, Falk’s pass was tipped and intercepted by senior linebacker Uchenna Nwosu inside the five-yard line. But Darnold and Co. could not capitalize, settling instead for a field goal and a 17-10 advantage.
It allowed the Cougars to hang around and tie the game at halftime. Falk had a strong first half, and the USC secondary allowed several big plays. Down 7-3 early in the second quarter, Falk dumped a screen pass off to wide receiver Tavares Martin Jr., who had nothing but clear space ahead of him for a 28-yard touchdown. And right before halftime, Falk led the Cougars on a 12-play, 94-yard drive that started from their own six-yard line and was aided by a few pass interference penalties by the Trojans. Morrow pounded it in from a yard out to tie the game at the half.
The Trojans are sure to slip in the rankings, and will have to win out in order to get back into the playoff conversation. But for now, the focus shifts to next week and Oregon State at home
“They’re probably not going to be happy to play us after this one,” Hawkins said.