For the second consecutive week, USC’s defense dominated, creating turnovers and sacks just when it seemed the opposition was close to putting points on the board. But on Saturday, the Trojan offense offset all of these positives created by their counterparts on the other side of the ball en route to a 10-7 defeat at the hands of Washington State, marking the first time the team has lost to the Cougars at the Coliseum since 2000.
In a game that was bereft of any offensive consistency from either side, big plays were the difference — and the Trojans produced hardly any.
No USC offensive play went for more than 20 yards, and no pass play gained even 10 yards as the Trojans gained just 193 total yards on offense. Redshirt sophomore quarterbacks Cody Kessler and Max Wittek combined to complete 11 of 21 passes for a measly total of 54 yards, with each throwing a costly interception.
After a poor punt from Washington State gave the Trojans the ball at the Cougars’ 39-yard line with a chance to extend the 7-0 lead just before halftime, Kessler mistimed a quick slant and threw behind sophomore receiver Nelson Agholor. Washington State cornerback Damante Horton intercepted the misfire and returned it 70 yards untouched to tie the game.
“Obviously that’s not what I wanted to happen on the play but I was just trying to get the ball out before I got sacked,” Kessler said. “It was one of those things where you kind of throw it blind to where you want [the receiver] to break, and I threw it a little behind [Agholor].”
Horton solidified his hero status for the Cougars by picking off another pass from Wittek on the Trojans’ final drive of the game to seal the upset.
The second interception followed the Cougars’ only successful offensive drive of the night. After Washington State receiver Dom Williams picked up 49 yards on a screen pass from Connor Halliday to the USC 30-yard line, the longest play of the entire game, kicker Andrew Furney converted a 41-yard field goal with 3:03 to play to put up the Cougars’ first offensive points of the night.
“We played lights-out defense versus a [pass-heavy] system that’s put up a bunch of numbers over the years,” USC head coach Lane Kiffin said. “Unfortunately, we were really poor on offense.”
Washington State played conservatively on defense all night, often dropping eight men into pass coverage in an attempt to limit big plays.
Kiffin seemed more than happy to oblige to the Cougars’ strategy, calling for 41 running plays and 21 passes, most of which were short routes and screen passes behind the line of scrimmage.
Kiffin’s play-calling, a much-maligned subject over the past two seasons, elicited roars of boos from enraged USC fans throughout the game, as running plays were called many times in third-and-long situations that rarely resulted in first downs for the Trojans.
USC was only 3 for 13 on third-down conversions in the game. But Kiffin defended his conservative strategy.
“When you drop eight [players deep] that’s gonna close up lanes in the passing game,” Kiffin said. “You’d like to think you’d run the ball pretty efficiently during drop-8. We did at times, but then we’d shoot ourselves in the foot.”
Despite the offense’s inability to maintain an effective drive, the Trojans’ defense held strong until the final minutes of the fourth quarter and even helped create USC’s only points of the game.
A pair of big gains by Washington State had the ball down to USC’s 33-yard line before a holding penalty and a sack by senior outside linebacker Morgan Breslin pushed the ball back past midfield. On the next play, redshirt junior defensive tackle George Uko sacked Halliday and forced a fumble, which was picked up by senior outside linebacker Devon Kennard and returned to the Cougars’ 22-yard line, giving the Trojans great field position.
Two plays after redshirt sophomore tailback Tre Madden converted a fourth-down run to get the ball inside the 10-yard line, Kessler rolled out to his right to pass but had enough space in front of him to scamper into the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown run to give the Trojans a 7-0 lead with 9:59 left in the second quarter.
Madden was the lone bright spot on USC’s offense, as he became the first USC running back to gain 100 yards in the first two games of the season since 1981 Heisman trophy winner Marcus Allen. Madden rushed 32 times for 151 yards for an average of 4.7 yards per carry and also converted all three of USC’s successful third down attempts.
“30-plus [carries], that’s a lot, and it took a toll,” Madden said. “I’m pretty banged up right now.”
Including the 12 yards he gained on two receptions, Madden accounted for 163 of the Trojans’ 193 yards on offense — the lowest USC output since 1998.
Junior wide receiver Marqise Lee, whose Heisman chances are all but gone, gained just 27 yards on seven catches.
“I’ve never seen stats as bad as we did today,” Kiffin said. “That’s very discouraging and obviously that falls on me, so we’re going to fix it.”
The team did manage to slog into field goal range on Wittek’s first two drives to open the second half, aided by a few Washington State defensive penalties and Madden’s solid performance in the backfield, but junior kicker Andre Heidari’s 32-yard attempt on the opening possession of the half was blocked, and his 43-yard attempt on the Trojans’ next drive went wide left.
As the clock wound down and fans trudged up the stairs and outside the Coliseum, a deafening chant of “Fire Kiffin!” echoed throughout the stadium.
“I think I heard those [taunts] before the game during warmups even, so I’m getting used to it,” Kiffin deadpanned. “It is what it is … You really can’t worry about that.”
If Kiffin truly isn’t distracted by the criticism that will surely surround him over the following week, that’s a good thing. Because judging by the team’s performance against the Cougars, the entire USC staff and team have a lot of other concerns to iron out before the Trojans’ game next week at home against Boston College.
Follow Will on Twitter @WillLaws