USC remained unbeaten Saturday by barely withstanding a pro-type passing performance by Washington quarterback Cary Conklin.
The Trojans won, 28-27, at the Coliseum as the Huskies elected to go for a 2-point conversion that failed with only 1:39 remaining in the game.
Conklin, who completed 15 of 19 passes for 239 yards and 3 touchdowns in the second half, underthrew his receiver, tailback Vince Weathersby, on the 2-point conversion try.
It was one of the few times that Conklin wasn’t on target in the final 30 minutes as the Huskies played catch-up with the Trojans and almost caught them.
So, third-ranked USC still has an unblemished record, 6-0 overall and 4-0 in the Pacific 10 Conference. The Huskies are 4-2 and 1-2 in the conference, virtually eliminating them from the Rose Bowl race.
Washington Coach Don James didn’t even consider a placekick that would have tied USC, saying, “It (a 2-point try) was the only way we could stay in the championship race.”
A tie counts as a half-game won and a half-game lost, and the conference champion is determined by the best record in the loss--and tie--columns.
“We were going for the win all the way,” James said. “We knew after UCLA beat us that anything but a win today would knock us out of the Rose Bowl race. I don’t think either of those teams (USC and UCLA) will collapse.”
Because top ranked Miami lost to Notre Dame, 31-30, USC probably will move to No. 2 in the national rankings this week with UCLA taking over No. 1 in the polls--unless the Irish vault from fourth to first.
USC Coach Larry Smith, looking haggard in the postgame news conference, wasn’t concerned about rankings.
“I’m so worn out right now I can’t think about that sort of stuff,” he said. “I’ll read about it in the morning.”
USC seemed on the verge of putting Washington away several times in front of of 62,974 and a national television audience.
The Trojans led, 14-0, late in the second quarter as Smith’s defensive unit dominated. But quarterback Rodney Peete’s fumble enabled the Huskies to score an easy touchdown from the USC 2-yard line just before halftime.
Instead of being demoralized at halftime, the Huskies were provided with a lift. USC pulled away to a 21-7 lead in the third quarter, but Washington closed to 21-14.
Then, USC went ahead, 28-14, only for Washington to score 2 touchdowns in the fourth quarter and come close to upsetting the Trojans, who were favored by 14 points.
It had been reported earlier in the week that Conklin was suffering from a jammed thumb on his passing hand. It wasn’t evident on a warm day Saturday as he had a hot hand, teaming with flanker Brian Slater for 3 touchdown passes covering 54, 8 and 38 yards.
Conklin picked on USC cornerback Chris Hale for his scoring throws to Slater. Even though it seemed that the 5-foot 8-inch Hale was overmatched against the the 6-4 Slater, the cornerback didn’t think his size was a disadvantage.
“Not a bit,” Hale said. “I was in the right place every time. I just didn’t make the plays. Everyone has tried to pick on me all year. Teams don’t try to go over the middle because we have two All-Americans there (safeties Mark Carrier and Cleveland Colter), so they go after me.”
Hale is the Pac-10 leader in pass interceptions with 4.
In the end, though, it all came down to the 2-point conversion try. Weathersby slipped out of the backfield with linebacker Scott Ross tracking him.
Weathersby had a step on Ross but Conklin’s pass hit the ground behind the running back.
USC defensive coordinator Chris Allen said the Trojans had “decent pressure” on Conklin with Colter and cornerback Ernest Spears coming from the outside. However, Conklin said he just underthrew his receiver.
The Huskies tried an onside kick after their touchdown with USC wide receiver Gary Wellman retaining the ball at the Trojan 47-yard line.
USC couldn’t get a first down, but Chris Sperle got off a 51-yard punt on fourth down with 12 seconds left that penned the Huskies in at their 13-yard line. That was the game.
Oregon Coach Rich Brooks said recently that USC has a “dial a tailback” system because so many players rotate at that position.
With Aaron Emanuel, Steven Webster and Ricky Ervins injured and unavailable, Scott Lockwood answered the call Saturday.
The sophomore from Boulder, Colo., who has a smooth running style with deceiving speed, cut through the Huskies for 133 yards in 27 carries with a 4-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. He got outside on a 41-yard run to set up his short scoring run.
Peete completed 16 of 22 passes for 186 yards and 1 touchdown and made some big plays while scrambling. However, he was harassed by the Washington defense, namely tackle Dennis Brown, in the first half. He was sacked twice for considerable yardage and lost 2 fumbles.
One sack, a 28-yard loss, took USC out of scoring position from the Washington 21-yard line in the first quarter.
“There were times when I should have thrown the ball away and I have to eliminate things like that,” Peete said.
Smith said: “In the first half, we didn’t protect the quarterback very well and Dennis Brown dominated us although our defense was also dominating. In the second half, we went to a lot of play-action stuff (to slow the rush).
“Our defense played a little tentative in the second half. We got up by 14 and didn’t want to give up the big one. However, Conklin is the best quarterback we’ve played against so far.”
After a scoreless first quarter, USC scored on Leroy Holt’s 1-yard run ending a 50-yard drive.
The Trojans then got a break when Conklin fumbled with Hale recovering at the Husky 24-yard line. Peete got the touchdown on a nifty, 8-yard run, stepping over a defender at the goal line.
USC’s defense was in charge then, not providing any decent field position for the Huskies.
It seemed that USC would run out the clock late in the second quarter on third and 2 at its own 17-yard line.
However, Peete retreated to pass, was sacked and fumbled with Washington getting the ball at the USC 2-yard line and scoring on Conklin’s 1-yard dive over the middle.
“We (the coaching staff) made a bad call,"Smith said. “We tried to get a sucker pass on them deep and we didn’t protect the quarterback. We gambled and lost when we should have played percentage football.”
Peete beat the rush by throwing more quickly in the third quarter. That was evident on a quick release pass to tight end Scott Galbraith, who went over the middle and then to the sideline to score on a 41-yard touchdown play.
“They had a safety blitz on, and I went to Galbraith on what is called a ‘hot route,’ ” Peete said.
Conklin went to work and threw a 54-yard scoring pass to Slater that reduced USC’s lead to 21-14. Hale was positioned for an interception, but the ball went through his hands, just barely tipping it to tlater.
The Trojans scored again on Lockwood’s 4-yard touchdown, but Conklin was difficult to stop and found Slater on a 8-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter to culminate a 76-yard advance. Hale was beaten on the play.
Later in the quarter, Conklin survived his fumble that he recovered for an 11-yard loss and a sack for another 8-yard loss to throw another touchdown pass. It was to Slater, of course, who out-ran Hale on a 38-yard play.
But his next pass for the 2-point conversion was inexplicably his worst of the game--taking his underrated team out of the Rose Bowl race.