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Play-Action’s Thing for USC

Saturday’s game reminded of that algebraic question about two trains headed toward each other going opposite directions.

USC and Washington were two 4-2 schools crossing paths at the Coliseum, yet ultimately bound for different destinations.

USC’s convincing 41-21 victory left the impression of one program finally separating the wheat from a chaff, a demarcation point in the Pete Carroll era.

Washington’s defeat, conversely, may have marked a darker turning point for the Huskies, who have never finished lower than second place in the Pacific 10 under Coach Rick Neuheisel, a streak that figures to end this year.

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It was only one game, on one fall day, but somehow you felt the implications for both schools were going to be long-lasting.

You sensed this kind of victory catapulting USC toward a Rose Bowl run and this sort of defeat plunging Washington toward leaner times.

For all the talk of how much better the Trojans looked under their second-year coach, and how this was the dawning of an old era, Carroll’s 10-8 overall record did not quite match the rhetoric.

Saturday, though, offered undeniable evidence of how far USC has come and reminded you that the Trojans were two plays against Kansas State and Washington State from being undefeated and, given their schedule strength, maybe No. 1 when the first bowl championship series standings are released Monday.

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Saturday, USC laid waste to a Washington team some thought would compete for the national title this year. Senior quarterback Carson Palmer could not have been more superb, undressing a young Huskies’ secondary for 348 yards and four touchdowns, while the Trojan defense held Washington to minus five yards rushing.

USC’s crushing defeat at Washington State a few weeks ago cannot be recouped, yet the Trojans now find themselves in the thick of the Rose Bowl race, only a game behind undefeated Washington State and Arizona State.

When linebacker Melvin Simmons heard Arizona State had upset Oregon in Eugene on Saturday, he made a fist with his right hand and let out a yelp regarding the Pac-10 race.

“Yes!” Simmons said, “We are in this baby!”

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USC has not been to the Rose Bowl since winning its last conference title in 1995, two head coaches ago. And while there are no sure things in this league -- USC could easily lose at Oregon next week -- these Trojans at least have the look of winners.

Saturday’s victory was critical in sustaining the momentum Carroll has tried so hard to build, and a 5-2 record makes it easier to pitch a philosophy than 4-3.

“This sort of gets him over the hump,” guard Lenny Vandermade said of his coach. “For a while we’d win one, lose one, win one, lose one, but we’re clicking way more than last year. Nobody’s crying about playing time; we all want to win. It’s just come together.”

Meanwhile, in the visitor’s locker room, you wondered if Washington was falling apart.

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Neuheisel has had an incredible run in Seattle, somehow able to pull off one improbable victory after another.

It even appeared for a while that Washington might do it again against USC after pulling to within two touchdowns after trailing 34-7 after the third quarter.

Washington has engineered 14 fourth-quarter comeback wins in Neuheisel’s three-plus seasons in Seattle, but the Huskies may have used their last magic trick in last week’s last-minute victory over Arizona.

As it appears now, Washington and Neuheisel may be close to a crisis point. The team is 4-3 and has lost five consecutive road games, with remaining Pac-10 road games at suddenly sizzling Arizona State (next week) and closing the year at Oregon and Washington State.

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“We are a football team that has to do a complete introspection as to how we’re going to salvage the season,” Neuheisel said.

Washington has suddenly become a one-dimensional team, relying on the arm of Cody Pickett and a few talented receivers to win games. The rushing game, which mostly went backward against USC, is totally inept.

Neuheisel said Washington fans “had the right to be disappointed.”

The program appears in a state of malaise, still shell-shocked over losing a game it should have won at Michigan on Aug. 31, or perhaps feeling the ramifications from recent NCAA sanctions leveled against Neuheisel while he was coaching at Colorado.

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These Huskies, in fact, remind of the often undisciplined teams Neuheisel coached in Boulder, and even Neuheisel admitted he hasn’t endured tough times like these since his 1997 Colorado team finished 5-6.

“You always consider losses like these critical,” he said Saturday. “Our program has been very successful over the last several years. We’re going through a transition that hopefully will come to a conclusion very quickly.”

USC, conversely, has to like the transition it seems to be in.


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