The set-up: After three mediocre wins, the Trojans came to Washington State where they won 69-0 two years ago, hoping to repeat that feat against a struggling, bottom-level Pac-10 team.
The story: It took a few quarters, but USC achieved the blowout win it had been trying to get the first three weeks. The team racked up 613 total yards on offense to Washington State’s 323.
The Trojans looked shaky in the first half, giving up a touchdown on an end-around throw on the opening drive and throwing two interceptions, but the game was never really in doubt thanks to some big plays.
After giving up the early touchdown to Washington State’s no-huddle offense — something USC’s defense hadn’t prepared for — the Trojans tied the game on their first play from scrimmage, thanks to senior fullback Stanley Havili’s 59-yard touchdown run. They took the lead just seconds later when freshman cornerback Nickell Robey intercepted Washington State quarterback Jeff Tuel’s pass and returned it 25 yards for his first collegiate interception and score.
“It came from instincts, watching film,” Robey said. “When [Tuel] checked off the play, I just knew what was coming. I anticipated and jumped the route. It was an awesome feeling, like hard work paying off.”
Robey bounced back after getting beat for that earlier touchdown (albeit by a receiver who was eight inches taller and 43 pounds heavier than him in Jared Karstetter) by recording that interception and a second one in the second quarter.
“I think it says a lot about who the kid is,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “He’s got no problem getting beat for a touchdown and coming back. Think about what he went through this offseason — losing his mother who was his heartbeat, fabulous lady. He moved all the way across the country hardly knowing anyone but the coaches. If true freshmen can make plays this early in their career, they’re going to be a really good player.”
It was over when: Havili took the handoff from sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley with 11:31 left in the first quarter, cut back and broke a multitude of tackles to score a 59-yard touchdown and tie the game at seven.
That play signified the emergence of Havili this year, and seemed to be an early indicator that USC would be able to almost score at will.
Robey then intercepted Tuel’s pass and, after a short Cougar drive that ended with a punt, the Trojans went 76 yards in three plays — including a 58-yard catch and run by Havili — capped by an 11-yard touchdown pass to freshman wide receiver Robert Woods that put the Trojans up 21-7 just eight minutes into the game.
“We should’ve [scored every time we had the ball],” Barkley said. “We could’ve had 70 points if those turnovers had gone the other way.”
More discipline: USC played its most disciplined game of the season, committing only five penalties for 39 yards, a season low in both categories.
The Trojans had been among the leading teams in the country in penalties committed and penalty yards given up heading into this game, so Kiffin was proud to see his team keep the yellow flags off the field.
“I feel we were physical and a lot more disciplined,” Kiffin said. “Thirty-nine yards of infractions, that’s come a long ways.”
Special teams comes through again: For the fourth-straight game, the special teams recorded stats of notice.
Even though senior kicker Joe Houston missed his only field goal attempt, redshirt sophomore defensive end Wes Horton blocked a punt and junior offensive tackle Tyron Smith blocked an extra point.
The tenacity was something Kiffin planned in order to avoid his team coming out slow and underestimating its opponent.
“We felt like the players needed to feel the coaches’ aggressiveness,” Kiffin said.
The Trojans also didn’t punt on Saturday and only went for one two-point conversion, which they made.
Injury update: Junior defensive tackle Armond Armstead didn’t play, though Kiffin said he probably could have. Kiffin said he wanted to give Armstead some rest because he wasn’t 100 percent during the first three games.
Horton left the game late in the fourth quarter after being kicked in the back by redshirt sophomore defensive end Nick Perry. Horton fell down trying to make a sack and Perry fell over him. Horton said he still had some pain in his back but wouldn’t know about his status until he got X-rays upon returning to Los Angeles.