Another Close Call

In their return to the Coliseum on Saturday, the USC Trojans were forced to hold on until the final play before walking away with their 29th straight home field win, a 26-20 victory over the Washington Huskies.

This game was much closer than the Trojan faithful anticipated, primarily because of the way Washington quarterback Isaiah Stanback was able to keep his team in the game and also for the manner in which the Trojans were forced to settle for field goals on three second half scoring opportunities. Because of that, Washington was able to stick close and at the end of the game it took a strange and dramatic twist to finally put it away.

The game got started well enough with the Trojans marching the length of the field on an 18 play drive. It looked as if the Huskies were going to force a field goal as the drive stalled but the Trojans reached into their bag of tricks as holder Mike McDonald stood and threw the ball to a wide open Steve Smith (who had lined up near the sideline, unknown to the UW defenders) and Smith was able to waltz untouched into the end zone for a 7-0 lead.

Stanback brought his team down on a nice opening drive of their own that ended with a field goal and it was 7-3 in favor of the Trojans.

The next Trojan drive belonged to Chauncey Washington as he not only provided a pair of runs that went for first downs as well as a long pass catch but he also had a pair of terrific pass blocks; one on a pass to Jody Adewale and the second on a touchdown pass to Patrick Turner. Chauncey displayed the kind of physical play today that we've been waiting to see as he returned from the hamstring injury.

The Turner touchdown made it 14-3 in favor of the Trojans and Booty had led two solid TD drives so at that point things were looking pretty good but then the Huskies came right back and scored a touchdown of their own to make it 14-10.

Just before half the Trojans got a nice kickoff return from C.J. Gable which gave us great field position and helped lead to a field goal and a 17-10 Trojan halftime advantage.

With USC expected to receive the second half kickoff, there were high hopes for another long scoring drive to help build the lead. After all, the Trojans always come out strong after half once they get a chance to gather and make a few adjustments, right? Not this time, as Washington executed a well-timed onside kick that caught the Trojans completely off guard and then on the first play they ran a reverse which got the ball down inside the ten. As it turned out, the hustle play by Keith Rivers to track down the ballcarrier short of the goal line was huge. It prevented a touchdown and the Huskies were unable to punch it in from there, they had to kick a field goal to make it 17-13 in favor of USC. Think about that, if they score a touchdown right there then all they are probably doing on that final play of the game is lining up for a potential game winning field goal.

On our next series we finally extended the passing game as Booty completed a 51 yard pass to Steve Smith but, once again, we were forced to settle for a field goal (20-13 USC) and you started to get the sense that maybe this one was going to be a lot closer than expected.

After a short Husky punt gave the Trojans great field position the momentum now seemed ours for the taking and Booty fired a shot downfield for Turner inside the five but the ball bounced off his hands and into the waiting arms of Washington linebacker Scott White who had a short return and a hit by Drew Radovich which brought a penalty flag.

With such a well played first half by both offenses, it now seemed as if the game was turning into a slugfest and it wasn't clear which team would be left standing at the end.

The Trojans were able to hold Washington on their next possession and, finally, received a big play as Brian Cushing blocked a punt and USC had the ball inside the Husky 20. Surely a touchdown here would put the game away but it wasn't to be as Washington held and forced another Danelo field goal to make it 23-13. There may have been an even bigger loss on the drive than the missed points as Steve Smith left the game with an injured ankle and did not return.

Once again Stanback brought his team down the field with a mix of run vs pass and when he threaded the ball between three Trojans into the hands of Johnie Kirton (still not sure how that pass was completed) it was 23-20 with more than ten minutes left to go and it was serious nervous time.

On the next possession the Trojans went three and out. Washington couldn't do much better with the ball after we punted, their only first down came after a terrible personal foul call against Taylor Mays. To his credit, Taylor shook off the bad call and came right back with a great play on 3rd down to force a punt. Following that punt, USC got the ball back at their 20 with just under 7:00 to play. At that point, we needed a drive. A big catch by Turner went for 29 yards, a Moody run went for 17 and then three straight Chauncey runs netted a first down and took more time off the clock. The drive stalled at the three and it was another short Danelo field goal to make it 26-20 with 1:34 left for Stanback to try and pull off the upset.

To his credit, Stanback came close to doing just that. For the second week in a row we had to watch as a team drove downfield within range of our end zone. Fortunately, on this day, the Huskies never got the opportunity to take a final shot. Instead of standing over the ball as the referees got ready for the final play, the Huskies got a little greedy and tried to take advantage of the confusion by organizing a play but in the time it took to do that the snap was late and the clock ran out.

For the Trojans, this was another gut check, another obstacle on the way to what it turning out to be a wild and unpredictable season. Just how many players can the Trojans afford to lose on the offensive side of the ball? We aren't playing with the offensive crispness all of us would like to see but how much better could we have looked in this game if Hancock, Powdrell, Havili, Jarrett, McFoy and Rachal had all been healthy and available for this game? We don't have that luxury yet each week somehow we find someone new to step up. This week it was Patrick Turner and I think we also saw Chauncey and Moody show that they can be a running back duo to watch for the remainder of the year. You also have to wonder how the new changes in timing, which have greatly reduced the number of offensive plays in each game, affects the play calling and strategy. It certainly has to be an adjustment of some sorts.

On the defensive side of the ball, it was good to see Sed Ellis back for his impact on the ground game but we still put relatively little pressure on Stanback. Coach Carroll also talked about how we are not forcing turnovers at our normal level. With the reduced number of plays, and reduced turnovers, that amounts to fewer scoring opportunities. Keith Rivers played as good of an all-around game as we've seen from him , especially with an impressive pair of batted down passes.

We need to recognize automatic Mario Danelo who is steadily building a case for All Pac-10 honors, if not more. Troy Van Blarcom also continued to be such a weapon putting the ball deep on kickoffs as he battled through a flexor injury this week in practice.

Next up are the ASU Sun Devils, a team struggling to overcome the early season blunders of their coach. The Sun Devils are talented enough to give USC a game if the Trojans are not playing up to their standards and, for the last few weeks, the Trojans have left the door open for less talented teams to come awfully close to monumental upsets. Fortunately, there is still plenty of talent and championship character on this young USC team to fight through those struggles to come out with victories and a current 5-0 record. No matter how you look at it, you can't improve on a goose egg in the loss column and that's the most important thing right now.


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