Star defensive back Desmond Trufant said “it was the little details” that kept Washington from upsetting USC Saturday night. You know, like being down 24-7 at the half.
Perhaps it was a detail similar to the previous Saturday in Eugene, when the Huskies found themselves down 35-7 at the half. That adds up to a combined 59-14 deficit at recess. Imagine, then, if the Huskies had big problems.
The inability to screw on the proper game face at kickoff is a failed detail that seems a little startling when the caliber of Washington’s first-half schedule is considered. The Huskies finished the fearsome portion –including three top-15 teams in a row — of the seasonal assignment 3-3, thanks to a 17-13 win over Stanford. If players can’t get it together in a timely way for LSU, Oregon and USC, they might think about another hobby, like going to class.
Realistically, UW could have been 4-2, because USC provided the opening by dumbing down in the second half. But the Huskies lost 24-14 because, as Trufant said, little details that escaped the Huskies — early, as usual.
Washington was down 10-0 barely four minutes to the game. On USC’s first play, running back Silas Redd, a refugee transfer from the Penn State debacle, was stopped at the line of scrimmage, but no one wrapped him up. He broke outside for the game’s biggest play — a 57-yard run. That produced a field goal.
On Washington’s second series, UW quarterback Keith Price threw a poor ball on first down that was intercepted. USC needed to go just 34 yards for a 10-0 lead.
Thereafter, Washington’s defense was winning its game.
Too late. Hole too big for the Huskies’ offense.
“That’s two consecutive weeks now we took the field and we didn’t respond good in the first half of the game,” said head coach Steve Sarkisian. “When you play good teams and go into the locker room (down 24-7) it makes it hard to win.”
The absence of upper-class leadership is a part of the problem, because the Huskies have a relatively teensy upper class (0-12, remember?). Then again, it seems that everyone in the Pac-12 Conference is winning with a heavy deployment of freshmen and sophomores, and USC is coming off probation.
It’s hard to pinpoint what it is missing psychically from the Huskies. It is not, however, hard to pinpoint quarterback Keith Price as both victim and perpetrator.
Victim, because the offensive line is so muddled by injuries and youth that Sarkisian called a whole bunch of three-step drops and flat passes in the first half to make sure Price wasn’t mangled by USC’s throat-stomping defensive line. And they still sacked him five times.
“We wanted to make (USC’s defense) run a little spread them out,” Sarkisian said. “Then we got behind and had to go downfield.”
The halftime result was 87 yards of total offense. But they made up for it with 40 yards in penalties. You know, the details.
Perpetrator, because Washington’s final three meaningful possessions of the game ended fumble-interception-fumble, all by Price, who had one of the most meaningless 20-of-28 passing days in recent Washington history. Particularly galling for Huskies fans was ending a nine-play, 51-yard drive at the 11-minute mark with a strip and recovery by USC’s safety Jawanza Starling at the USC 3-yard line.
Afterward, a disconsolate Price saidm “It’s just not working for me, man.”
“I think he tried to pump-fake the safety, then he tried to tuck it,” said Sarkisian. Starling reached into all that ball movement and pulled USC’s 11th-ranked hindquarters from immolation. Not to mention bailing out his coach, Lane Kiffin.
While the Huskies defense grew in confidence — star receivers Marqise Lee (two catches, 32 yards) and Robert Woods (five for 88) mostly in check, due in part to the fine work of Trufant — Kiffin played so conservatively he nearly took the Republican nomination from Mitt Romney.
“I continue to remind myself that there is one goal, and that’s to win the game,” said Kiffin. “This isn’t about anybody’s numbers or the Heisman. We were conservative once we got a lead (24-7) like that.”
So conservative were the Trojans that in the second half they had five first downs and 138 yards. After the 10-point start, they scored only one more offensive touchdown. The decisive play for USC came on special teams.
Late in the second quarter after another three-and-out, Washington’s Travis Coons had his punt blocked at the UW 21-yard line by Anthony Brown, who scooped up the ball and scored, providing the 24-7 lead.
“The breakdown came in the middle of our front,” said Sarkisian. “We worked on it all week.”
Sarkisian will have to have to work on the details without the external motivator of a glamor opponent. The next six foes — Arizona, Oregon State, Cal, Utah, Colorado and WSU — are the Pac-12 lessers, although the Wildcats and Beavers may be nearly in USC’s class.
“It doesn’t get any easier in the second half,” he said. “With all the adversity, I’m proud of the guys for their effort and preparation. I would have liked to have been 4-2 instead of 3-3.”
But for these Huskies, four turnovers by the quarterback and a blocked punt for a TD are details like the Rocky Mountains were details to Lewis and Clark. There is probably a way through, but it wasn’t apparent Saturday night.