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Trojans almost beat themselves but find a way to escape with victory

SEATTLE -- Since the beginning of the Pete Carroll era, this has been a USC team that luxuriates in victory, lingering among its spoils to hug and howl long after the field has emptied.

On a wet washcloth of a Saturday night, this was a USC team that couldn’t disappear fast enough.

Many of them ran off the soggy Husky Stadium turf before the final blow of the whistle. Some of them were underneath the stands before the final ticks of the clock.

They kept their heads down even as distant fans cheered them. They kept their faces grim even as University of Washington players congratulated them.

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There was no hugging. There was no howling.

There was, it seemed, no victory.

There was, it was clear, an escape.

It was a 27-24 victory over Washington that felt less like a football game than a 3 1/2 -hour belly crawl through a makeshift tunnel.

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“Horrid,” said Coach Pete Carroll.

“Killing ourselves,” mumbled quarterback John David Booty.

“It was kind of, let’s get out,” said Sam Baker, one of only a couple of players to remain on the field afterward, looked into the black misty sky as if lost.

“Today, it seemed like we took a step backward,” he said.

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This might be literally true.

In perhaps the most giant-killing week in college football history -- four of the top seven ranked teams lost -- much damage was also done to the top-ranked winner.

How can a team remain No. 1 after a game in which it has nearly more penalties (16) than pass completions (20)?

How can a team stay on top when it has nearly as many penalty yards (161) as its opponent had total yards (190)?

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Beginning with the Orange Bowl after the 2002 season, USC has spent most of the last five years looking like the best team in the country.

On Saturday, with supposedly their deepest and most talented team during that stretch, they clearly did not.

For one of the few times in Carroll’s seven years here, they looked unprepared.

On the game’s first snap, Sedrick Ellis jumped offside.

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On the game’s ninth snap, Shareece Wright hit a guy after he was out of bounds.

On the 11th snap, Thomas Williams grabbed another guy’s face mask.

On the 13th snap, Williams caught a perfect toss from Washington quarterback Jake Locker for a drive-ending interception and a perfect game metaphor.

USC survived this because of their athleticism and Washington’s youth, and nothing more.

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“It’s a classic game, when you really mess it up and give up a night,” Carroll said. “Washington was there to take it, all they needed was one more chance.”

Indeed, the Huskies pulled within a touchdown early in the fourth quarter on a drive that included a USC interference-on-the-punt-returner penalty and two pass interference penalties.

Then the USC offense accumulated minus-two yards on its next two possessions, giving the ball back to Washington at midfield midway through the quarter, setting the stage for the upset.

“We were so horrible that it was hard to watch,” Carroll said.

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But then Terrell Thomas stripped Washington punt returner Anthony Russo of the ball, the Trojans recovered the fumble and a kicked a field goal, and even a late blocked punt that led to a final Huskies touchdown couldn’t touch them.

“Coach said . . . this was a game we could have won,” said the Huskies’ Louis Rankin of Ty Willingham.

The other coach agreed.

“We almost beat ourselves tonight, we tried really hard,” Carroll said.

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Carroll is known for having his team ready to play these sucker games that often fool distracted powerhouses.

Oklahoma may lose to Colorado, and Florida may lose to Auburn, but USC rarely loses to a young and struggling team such as Washington.

“Explanation, no, I don’t have that,” Carroll said.

There are a couple of clues, though.

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First, the Trojans have not seemed to jell under Booty’s leadership, which is scattered and inconsistent.

Four games into the season, and he seems like a different quarterback than the one who led them to a Rose Bowl victory last January over Michigan.

While he completed 20 of 37 passes for 236 yards and a touchdown Saturday, Booty was intercepted twice and missed badly on several big passes, while his receivers dropped several others.

Plus, of course, there were the usual couple of batted-down passes that have come to plague his time here.

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“I think it’s fixable,” said Booty, who complained of a slick ball.

Second, it seems like the running backs can’t find the rhythm required to lead the Trojans on long, clock-killing drives.

While Stafon Johnson and Chauncey Washington combined for 234 yards, they did it more with big gains than consistent gains.

When the Trojans needed to protect the lead in the fourth quarter, three of their four drives were only three plays each.

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Would it help, at some point, to stick with one running back? Maybe give the ball to Johnson, who leads the team in rushing and has proved he can run both inside and out, and see what happens?

Carroll will be surely fiddling with lots of new ideas this week after leaving the field as if fleeing a nightmare.

“It was kind of, let’s just get the clock out of here, and let’s get out,” Carroll said.

Trojans fans must hope that a team like this, on a night like this, never comes back.

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Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.


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