The trap was set, as it had been many times before. Another USC football team with title potential that meets its fate only to take a perilous detour through the Willamette Valley to Oregon State, where things never seem to go as planned for the Trojans.
It had been a decade since their last defeat here, but the specter of those ill-fated journeys still lurked, years of evil voodoo racing through those half-finished grandstands. The four terrifying turnovers in 2006. The game against Jacquizz Rodgers in 2008. Both losses slammed the door on the Trojans’ national title hopes and left USC haunted over what could have been.
Those devastating disappointments seemed like a fitting prelude as USC No. 7 entered the final Pac-12 trip to Corvallis with similar sky-high hype on Saturday, sending polls skyrocketing and entering playoff talks, only to run headfirst into a brick wall against the Beavers.
Somehow, the Trojans managed to escape unscathed and walk away with a 17-14 win that would exorcise their demons and keep their unbeaten start intact.
“We found a way,” said USC coach Lincoln Riley, “and it feels damn good.”
Little seemed to be working for USC ahead of his final, final drive. An offensive that seemed unstoppable in three games suddenly found itself unable to move the ball. And quarterback Caleb Williams was bursting at the seams after a stellar start to the season.
Without his defense, which hit four takeaways for the third time in four weeks, USC would never have held it together long enough. But after a long, ugly night, it came down to the star quarterback, who had a chance chance to wipe out everything that had come before.
“Some days you’re not going to be at your best,” Riley said. “Some things won’t go the way you want them to, and how you react in those moments is what separates you. I was just reminding you [Williams]we went through that when he was younger.”
It was still an unsafe journey. A pass has fallen. Then another. Faced with a do-or-die fourth down, Williams rumbled forward himself and just found the first-down mark when his offensive linemen pushed him forward with all their might. Little by little, USC clawed its way through the field.
Then, just over a minute from time, Williams spotted Jordan Addison hurtling down the sideline and let it rip. The ball came just in time, missing a sprint safety and finding Addison in perfect position for a 21-yard go-ahead score.
“It was a perfect ball, right into my chest,” Addison said. “Landing. Ball game.”
That 11-play touchdown drive proved just enough, thanks in large part to USC and its opportunistic defense, which rolled in a fourth and final interception courtesy of Max Williams to take Oregon State (3-1, 0-1 Pac- 12) to defeat. in the last few seconds.
“The four turnovers, the huge stops, the game closing, you can’t say enough about how we played defensively,” Riley said. “You just can’t do that. A lot of guys performed, acted out a lot of things. It was a brave performance.”
USC (4-0, 2-0) went without revenue for the fourth straight game but attempted to give the game away several times. Williams put on perhaps the poorest performance of his collegiate career, finishing 16 for 36 for 180 yards and a touchdown.
Without a Herculean performance from Travis Dye, who rushed for 133 yards and a touchdown in 19 carries, it’s unclear if USC’s offense could have moved the ball at all.
Saturday night didn’t start off on the right foot. After a 36-yard scamper by Dye, USC went empty for the next three games and then dropped to fourth for the first time this season. It was also the first non-touchdown opening drive for the Trojans under Riley.
Her second ride wasn’t much better. Dye dragged USC’s offense largely alone while the Trojans struggled to find any rhythm. Through two drives, Dye had 70 yards while Williams had completed just one of six passes for 11 yards. Both USC possessions were unsuccessful as Denis Lynch missed a 35-yard field goal attempt.
The Trojans were soon behind for the first time this season when Deshaun Fenwick fired into the end zone for a four-yard score.
In the face of the first major adversity, USC’s usually dynamic offense looked out of line. Seemingly easy throws from Williams sailed up, dived in the dirt, or arrived late and behind his receivers. The quarterback finished the first half with just six for 18 for 64 yards, his worst half of the season.
A diner briefly saved USC from a crushing swing late in the second quarter when Eric Gentry picked up Beavers quarterback Chance Nolan. The Trojans were able to muster just enough to put Lynch within range for a 42-yard field goal, the only points of the half for one of the nation’s highest-scoring offenses.
There would be no magic elixir for the ailing USC locker room offense. After their return, the Trojans sent the kickoff wide. In subsequent possession, they fumbled within their own one-yard line. When USC found a way to move the ball, Williams took a third-down sack that knocked the Trojans out of field-goal range.
It took another big play for USC’s defense to get back within striking distance as Ceyair Wright picked up Nolan to give the ball to the Trojans just 26 yards from goal. They almost blew that opportunity, too, until Dye broke through a crowd in fourth and second and scored a goal.
That result for a 10-7 lead early in the fourth looked like it could ignite the Trojans. Especially since the Beavers missed a field goal and Mekhi Blackmon added his own pick on their next drive. But Williams and co. fell back into their own five, and a 33-yard punt put Oregon State back in first position.
It took Oregon State two games to capitalize with an 18-yard touchdown from Jam Griffin. But it wouldn’t be enough as USC’s defense got tough and its offense found a way to escape.
“You’re breaking up,” Riley said. “Truly great teams find a way no matter what the circumstances.
“We found a way tonight.”
https://www.latimes.com/sports/usc/story/2022-09-24/usc-vs-oregon-state-recap-caleb-williams-lincoln-riley-comeback Caleb Williams-Jordan Addison TD saves USC at Oregon State