June 23, 2024

All they needed was one little spark, Lincoln Riley assured his USC Trojans, one measly twist of fate from the football gods for things to go their way.

What No. 20 USC got instead against No. 5 Washington was a whirling inferno, with enough twists and turns to leave a sold-out Coliseum crowd’s heads spinning. Thrust into an extravaganza of explosive plays, on a night when defense was largely optional, the Trojans caught fire but were left smoldering in a 52-42 loss, their Pac-12 title hopes largely reduced to ash.

The Trojans piled up 515 yards. They rushed for 203, just short of a season high, without their lead back, MarShawn Lloyd. Quarterback Caleb Williams had his best game in more than a month, accounting for four touchdowns. One after another, USC piled up big plays, 17 in all.

It wasn’t enough. Washington (9-0, 6-0 Pac-12) proved to be an unstoppable force Saturday night.

At least, compared to the Trojans’ unraveling defense. Washington put up 572 yards, the most given up by USC since Riley became coach. Running back Dillon Johnson steamrolled USC for 256 yards and four touchdowns, more than any team had rushed for against USC this season.

And yet USC still had a final chance, down by three with half the fourth quarter remaining. The Trojans had managed a rare stop, forcing Washington to settle for a field goal, and USC had driven into Huskies territory, threatening to take a lead.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams loses the ball on a fumble during the second quarter against Washington.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams loses the ball on a fumble during the second quarter against Washington.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

But a holding penalty destabilized the drive. Then Williams was sacked out of field goal range and he laid in the grass for a few extra seconds, as if he knew what the loss meant.

Washington scored soon after, putting the game out of reach.

Back and forth, two of the nation’s top five offenses traded punches from the start, while their respective defenses braced for the inevitable impact.

USC marched down the field on a 12-play, six-minute drive to start the scoring, capped by a two-yard, Raleek Brown touchdown.

1

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 4, 2023: USC Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams (13) walks.

2

USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch yells at the defense a Washington touchdown on third-and-18.

3

USC's Duce Robinson (88) blocks a punt by Washington's Jake McCallister in the first quarter.

1. USC quarterback Caleb Williams walks off the field during the final moments of the Trojans’ 52-42 loss to Washington at the Coliseum on Saturday night. 2. USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch yells at the defense a Washington touchdown on third-and-18. 3. USC’s Duce Robinson (88) blocks a punt by Washington’s Jake McCallister in the first quarter. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Then, Washington responded with its own methodical drive, scoring in 10 plays without needing a single third down.

Nothing that happened from there on could appropriately be described as “methodical.” Six of the next seven scoring drives in the first half took less than three total minutes.

The real bedlam began, rather uncharacteristically, with consecutive stops, the only punts of the first half for either team.

A devastating drop by freshman wideout Duce Robinson that would’ve otherwise resulted in a touchdown stopped USC’s second drive dead. Washington responded with its own three-and-out.

But as the Huskies tried to punt, Robinson burst through the line in a blazing bit of redemption, overwhelming the punter.

The block gave USC the ball back at the eight-yard line, and Williams ran in his 10th touchdown of the season just two plays later.

On any normal night, maybe that would’ve been a turning point. On this particularly dizzying Saturday, it was just the first of several.

There was the stunning touchdown pass that Huskies star Michael Penix Jr. laced on the run into triple coverage, part of his 256-yard, two-touchdown night. Or the pair of explosive runs from USC backs Austin Jones and Darwin Barlow that set up a score. Or Washington’s 52-yard rushing touchdown that followed.

Three more touchdowns were scored in the final four minutes of the first half, among them a stunning, 41-yard flea flicker from Williams that on any other night might’ve led the game highlights. Amid Saturday’s scoring frenzy, though, it was merely a footnote.

The more consequential moment came just before the half as Williams attempted to scramble. Washington linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui had other plans, swatting the ball out of Williams’ extended arm. The Huskies recovered and needed three plays to score, taking a lead into halftime.

USC wide receiver Dorian Singer can't quite haul in a potential touchdown pass during the first quarter against Washington.

USC wide receiver Dorian Singer can’t quite haul in a potential touchdown pass during the first quarter against Washington.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Washington running back Dillon Johnson breaks off a big run against the USC defense in the first half.

Washington running back Dillon Johnson breaks off a big run against the USC defense in the first half.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The turnover might’ve helped break the game open, if not for Eric Gentry returning the favor.

As Washington drove to open the second half, the USC linebacker tipped a pass from Penix deep in Trojans territory. It was picked off by USC cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace.

Eight plays later, Williams drew USC even again with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Brenden Rice.

Neither team built more than a one-touchdown lead all night. And as Gentry pulled Penix down for a fourth-quarter sack, stopping another drive in USC territory, the Huskies opted for a field goal. The door was suddenly open.

But like most moments on Saturday night, it didn’t last long.

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