LOS ANGELES – For Washington State, it was an unsatisfying finish to a Pac-12 series that has produced plenty of frustration over the past century.
Southern Cal used timely plays – and timely penalties – to capture an advantage, then gradually pulled away in the second half to turn back visiting WSU.
The sixth-ranked Trojans held WSU off the scoreboard after halftime and churned out a few lengthy scoring possessions to stay unbeaten and deny the Cougars an elusive win in L.A.
USC outscored WSU by 13 in the second half of a 30-14 Pac-12 victory on Saturday at L.A. Memorial Coliseum.
“It was a hard-fought game,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said. “Our guys left it all out there. … We just didn’t quite get to the point where we could get control of the game.”
The Cougars fell to 6-42-2 at USC’s home venue and slipped to 10-63-4 all time versus the Trojans. It’s uncertain when – or if – the teams will meet again. WSU and USC aren’t scheduled to play next season, and the Trojans are ditching the Pac-12 to join the Big Ten Conference in 2024. What’s for certain: Saturday’s game marked the final Pac-12 contest between WSU and USC.
WSU (4-2, 1-2 Pac-12) erased a 10-0 deficit and went ahead 14-10 midway through the second quarter, but USC (6-0, 4-0) reclaimed the lead – for good – with a methodical scoring series just before the break.
The Trojans leaned on the ground game and marched on an 11-play, 65-yard drive over 6:19. WSU’s defense was tagged with back-to-back penalty calls on third-and-long situations inside its red zone – including a questionable pass interference penalty on a third-and-13 – and standout USC running back Travis Dye finished the drive with a short TD carry.
WSU came into the game with 23 total penalties this season. The Cougars were hit with 11 of them against USC – some drew wide criticism from media personalities, and a couple of the flags may have changed the momentum of the game.
“We’re not gonna use it as an excuse,” Dickert said. “We made some mistakes in key, critical situations that really hurt ourselves. … I’ll get a chance to look at a bunch of those and the operation of the game and the refs, we’ll kinda sort that out as we go.”
The first four drives of the second half went nowhere as both defenses clamped down. The Trojans broke through late in the third period, after nearly turning the ball over for just the second time this season.
Quarterback Caleb Williams was picked off by WSU cornerback Chau Smith-Wade near the sideline, but officials called a hold after determining that Smith-Wade had put his hands on the intended target too early.
Four plays later, Williams connected with Mario Williams over the middle for a 24-yard score, fashioning a 24-14 lead. With WSU’s offense sputtering, a 10-point deficit proved insurmountable.
The Cougars gave a respectable effort on the ground behind freshman tailback Jaylen Jenkins, but they struggled through the air in the second half and failed to finish possessions.
Jenkins totaled 130 yards on 13 carries.
“Really proud of Jaylen, really proud,” Dickert said. “I told him today, coming into the game, ‘You’re going to make a big play.’ … You just see the type of game-breaking speed he has in open field.”
Jenkins’ 41-yard burst up the middle late in the third quarter was one of few signs of life for the Cougs in the second half. They punted three times and turned the ball over on downs. USC drained 13 minutes off the clock on its final two possessions, both of which ended with short field goals.
“Just not smart football on our end,” WSU quarterback Cameron Ward said. “We all have things we need to clean up and execute at a higher level.”
WSU quarterback Cameron Ward finished 19 of 32 for 172 yards and two touchdowns with no turnovers. He completed 14 of his first 18 passes. Ward went 7 of 16 for 49 yards after halftime.
“If we’re trying to be one of the top offenses in the country, we can’t have a shutout in the second half – we just can’t,” Ward said.
The Cougars played the second half without starting slot receiver Renard Bell and No. 1 running back Nakia Watson, both of whom suffered injuries. Dickert didn’t have an update on the two after the game.
WSU’s defense fared well in containing Williams, who completed 15 of 29 passes for 188 yards and two touchdowns.
“I would definitely give his kudos because at the end of the day, he got the win,” WSU linebacker Daiyan Henley said. “We came out with a game plan to get him off schedule. I’d say, for the most part, we were able to do so.”
The Trojans asked tailback Travis Dye to shoulder the load, and he responded with 149 yards and a score on 28 carries. USC accumulated 116 rushing yards on 22 attempts in the second half while Williams passed 5 of 11.
WSU and USC produced similar stat totals in most categories, except penalties. The Trojans gained 369 yards and the Cougs produced 316. USC tallied five sacks. WSU managed one, but provided enough pressure to disrupt Williams’ flow.
USC went into the break protecting a 17-14 lead after a well-matched first half. At first, it appeared the Trojans might have a considerable advantage against a Cougars defense that surrendered four “big plays” – passes of 15-plus yards and rushes of 10 or more yards – on USC’s first two possessions. The Trojans managed six big plays the rest of the way.
“I think we fought. We made the adjustments we had to in the first half,” Henley said. “We were ready to just go out there and win. We made mistakes. That comes with the game. More than anything, penalties took us a couple of steps backwards.”
Williams fired a 38-yard scoring strike on a third-and-16 to receiver Mario Williams, who found himself all alone in the corner of the end zone after WSU’s secondary lapsed in coverage. Standout USC defensive end Tuli Tuipulotu registered two sacks to wreck WSU’s second series and the Trojans’ offense marched into the red zone with three big plays, but the Cougars’ defense held inside its 10-yard line and held USC to a short field goal.
“We were beating ourselves on those first few drives,” WSU edge Brennan Jackson said. “We didn’t play our brand of ball. We were making too many mistakes. We weren’t finishing on plays. I think it was kind of understanding that we need to settle down in the environment, the Coliseum. … Once we started to settle down and play our game, you could see some flashes of what we could do.”
Trailing 10-0 early on, WSU’s offense found a spark in Jenkins, who broke off runs of 28 and 21 yards to set up a 12-yard scoring catch from slotback Robert Ferrel – his third TD grab in four games – on the first play of the second quarter. The Cougars’ defense settled down and forced USC into two consecutive three-and-outs.
Strong safety Jordan Lee, back in the fold after missing the past three games with an injury, blew up a third-and-1 sweep play to give WSU momentum early in the second quarter.
Ward then tossed a dangerous pass deep downfield toward Jenkins, who adjusted his route to the ball in flight and hauled in a 45-yard reception as his legs were taken out. Watson scored on a goal-line pass to put the Cougars ahead 14-10.
The Trojans went ahead to stay with a long series late in the first half. USC capitalized after WSU was tagged with two consecutive penalties on third-and-long plays.
“You can’t let the last play beat you twice,” Jackson said. “When a penalty happens, yeah, sometimes we’re going to feel a certain way about a call, but in the end, that was the last play. The next play matters most.”