Friday night’s highly anticipated Pac-12 matchup between USC and Washington State didn’t disappoint, as the No. 16 Cougars edged the No. 5 Trojans, 30–27, thanks to Erik Powell’s go-ahead 32-yard field goal with less than two minutes remaining. Sam Darnold led one improbable game-tying drive but couldn’t put together a second, losing a fumble on the Trojans’ final possession that secured Washington State’s first win over USC in Pullman since 2002.
Here are three takeaways from the latest #Pac12AfterDark thriller.
1. You don’t have to look far down the box score to find USC’s biggest problem on Friday night: Quarterback Sam Darnold and his offense struggled to find any consistency. The redshirt sophomore finished with a career-low 164 passing yards and didn’t complete a touchdown pass, though he ran for the game-tying score with 5:01 left in the game.
Whether Darnold tried airing it out downfield or handing off to one of the Trojans’ two dynamic tailbacks, Ronald Jones II and Stephen Carr, success only came in short spurts, if at all. He entered the fourth quarter with exactly 100 passing yards, which is less than Cougars quarterback Luke Falk totaled on third down plays alone.
Chalk some blame up to a depleted offensive line that lost starting right tackle Chuma Edoga and right guard Viane Talamaivao to in-game injuries, exacerbating the absence of left tackle Toa Lobendhan, who didn’t travel with the team because of a staph infection. Standout D-lineman Hercules Mata’afa and the rest of the Cougars’ pass rush swarmed Darnold for much of the second half, forcing a number of bad throws. With 1:40 left after Washington State took the lead, the Trojans’ offense squandered their last chance quickly. Darnold threw the ball away on the first play of the drive, then was stripped by a blitzing Jahad Woods on the second.
The previous drive, Darnold and his receivers found their usual late-game magic. Facing a fourth-and-13, Darnold stepped up into traffic and connected with Tyler Vaughns for a first down as three defenders bared down on him. On the next play, he found Vaughns again for a 26-yard gain that set up the Trojan’s game-tying score.
A 27-point output may not indicate a clear offensive struggle, but the USC offense had few answers for Washington State defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. Take away Jones’s 86-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, and the Trojans rushed for just 77 yards on the night.
2. In a battle of dynamic quarterbacks, Falk outplayed his counterpart. The fifth-year senior finished 34 of 51 for 340 yards and threw for a pair of touchdowns. Along the way, Falk set the Pac-12 record for career completions and tied former Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota for the second-most touchdown passes in conference history.
The veteran quarterback got the Cougars rolling at the end of the first quarter when he completed a 61-yard pass to Renard Bell, setting up a 28-yard touchdown throw two plays later to Tavares Martin Jr. Perhaps his craftiest pass was the shortest one of all. He shoveled the ball to Jamal Morrow with 5:02 left in the game, allowing Morrow to streak 23 yards for a go-ahead touchdown to cap a strong night for the Cougars’s primary running back.
The Cougars’ offense is predicated on Falk keeping his cool under pressure and bouncing back from mistakes to regain his efficiency. He took five sacks and threw an interception inside his own five-yard line, only to recover and lead his team to the kind of signature win he returned to Pullman for after passing on last spring’s NFL draft.
3. With the presumptive favorite taking a loss, readjust your outlook for the rest of the Pac-12. No. 6 Washington hasn’t been far behind USC through the first four weeks of the season and now appears to be the conference’s best chance to run the table, starting with a winnable road game against Oregon State in Week 5. While the Huskies are talented enough to coast through most of their conference slate, tough matchups against No. 20 Utah and, of course, Washington State in the Apple Cup, await at the end of this season before a potential meeting with USC in the Pac-12 title game.
As for the Trojans, they have a tough two-game stretch after their own meeting with Oregon State next weekend: at home against Utah, than a trip to South Bend for the annual matchup with Notre Dame. A win over whoever emerges from the Pac-12 North on championship weekend should put them squarely back in the playoff picture as long as they find a way out of their sluggish start that included nerve-testing games against Western Michigan, Texas and Cal.
Don’t discount Washington State’s chances to spin this marquee win forward into a banner season for head coach Mike Leach, but consistency hasn’t exactly been the program’s specialty. The Cougars’ last two games of the season come on the road at Utah and Washington—those games will reveal how well they’ve moved on from 2016’s late-November fade, when an eight-game winning streak left them a chance to play their way into the Pac-12 title game and in turn the playoff, only to suffer deflating double-digit losses to Colorado and Washington.
It’s anyone’s guess now as to how the Pac-12 race will play out from here, but Washington State announced its arrival among the contenders on Friday night.