USC defense backs 6-0 Trojans to win over Washington State

The emotional leader of the defense was sidelined with his arm in a cast. The team’s top security was disqualified for aiming and was left to watch and wait. At the beginning of a two-week stretch that would almost certainly define USC’s season, their defense was exhausted, their shallow depth stretched to the limit against Washington State, an offense known for stretching the field to its maximum.

The stage was set for a disappointment, with a marquee meet in Utah coming up next week. But after weeks of offense taking a leading role, it was the USC defense that drew the final curtain, throwing up a second-half shutout and leading the Trojans past Washington State in a 30-14 win at the Coliseum on Saturday night.

Sixth-placed USC went 6-0 up for the first time since 2006, when Pete Carroll roamed the sidelines. She had her defense to thank for that.

“You lose two of your best players, two of your leaders… You have to step up,” said coach Lincoln Riley. “We’ve had a lot of guys stepping up.”

A unit that wasn’t long ago considered the Achilles’ heel of USC’s playoff hopes stamped that sentiment in a hurry Saturday night, even without their injured captain Shane Lee as linebacker. The defense held Washington State at 316 yards and completely neutralized Cougars quarterback Cameron Ward, forcing one of the Pac-12’s most dangerous double threats to run for his life.

Regularly the Trojan in pursuit, Tuli Tuipulotu turned Saturday’s win into something of a one-man show as he broke the Washington state line with complete impunity. The All-Pac-12 defensemen finished the game with three of USC’s five sacks followed by four losing tackles.

“Absolutely critical,” said defense coordinator Alex Grinch of Tuipulotu’s performance.

For the first time this season, USC’s defense did not force a turnover. But even for the first time, it didn’t matter much. USC’s defense, known for their tendency to flex but not break, didn’t flex even that much Saturday night.

It gave up 130 yards and two touchdowns to Washington State freshman Jaylen Jenkins. But in an outstanding performance, that was perhaps the only mistake one could pick.

USC defenseman Brandon Pili celebrates after releasing Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward.

USC defenseman Brandon Pili celebrates after sacking Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward in the second half on Saturday.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The concerns came on offense instead, where quarterback Caleb Williams was barely at his best in the face of a disruptive Washington State defense. After opening the game five to six for 86 yards, Williams was 10 to 23 for 102 yards.

“We didn’t throw and catch the ball well tonight,” Riley admitted.

With Williams knocked out, USC’s offense stuttered through four three-and-outs. Eventually, Riley turned to running against Travis Dye to crush Washington state. Dye delivered, rushing 28 times for 149 yards and a touchdown.

“You have to win in different ways. You have to find ways to move the ball,” Riley said. “We adapted, and he was a big part of that.”

Dye summed it up more simply: “It was wonderful tonight,” he said of the space he found to run.

USC running back Travis Dye is tackled by Washington State defensive end Andrew Edson.

USC running back Travis Dye is tackled by Washington State defensive end Andrew Edson (95) in the second half of Saturday.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Against one of the Pac-12’s best fronts, it was an outstanding performance by the fifth year. By early Saturday, Washington State had established itself as one of the nation’s most destructive defenses, ranking in the top seven in the nation in both sacks and tackles for loss.

It didn’t seem like that to begin with.

An offside penalty from Washington State kept USC’s opening move alive, and Mario Williams capitalized on the advantage two plays later by slipping behind the Cougars’ zone, where Caleb Williams spotted him wide open for a 37-yard touchdown that first of two of the recipient. A field goal on USC’s next possession extended their early lead to 10 and once again put the Trojans in prime position to hit the accelerator before halftime.

But as Washington state climbed back, the Trojans faltered. For the first time this season, USC had back-to-back three-and-outs. In the second quarter, it averaged a meager three yards per play.

Meanwhile, the Cougars kicked things up a notch, sparking a 92-yard scoring march that was crowned by a 12-yard touchdown on Robert Ferrel. Getting the ball back quickly after a three-and-out from the Trojans, a well-aimed call sparked another touchdown drive.

The penalty would leave USC without Calen Bullock, his top safety, while completely changing the game’s early tenor. A USC stop that would have forced Washington State into third place, instead leaving Ward two games later to test the Trojans deep. There he met running back Jaylen Jenkins, who hit a circus catch from 45 yards that gave Washington State an easy green on a one-yard pass to Nakia Watson.

Penalties continued to turn the tide both ways. An offside call breathed life into USC’s subsequent drive, which appeared to come to a safe stop in the red zone. Facing the third and long ball, Caleb Williams lofted a pass into the corner of the end zone, resulting in a lucky pass interference call. Dye scored a goal from four yards in the next game.

It took another time penalty before USC scored their next touchdown. What would otherwise have been an interception thrown by Caleb Williams in the third quarter was nullified by the defensive hold. An unsportsmanlike conduct call was pinned for another 15 yards, and Mario Williams made Washington State pay for his mistakes with his second hit on a 24-yard throw.

USC’s offense produced just two field goals in the fourth quarter. But its defenses had dug in its claws, proving it could carry its own when called upon.

“The defense has led us to some big wins and I’m proud of them,” Riley said. “I know there is more. We will always get better.” USC defense backs 6-0 Trojans to win over Washington State

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