USC’s offense cannot overcome sluggish start in loss to No. 17 Washington

Washington's Kyler Gordon, left, knocks away a pass intended for USC's Drake London in the first half on Saturday in Seattle.
(Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

Three years earlier, in the midst of a monumental upset that helped break open an unexpected run to the Rose Bowl, a wide-eyed USC freshman quarterback broke a tooth while celebrating on the Husky Stadium sideline.

It was an odd footnote in the otherwise quiet career of Matt Fink, who until his heroic turn a week ago, had waited patiently over three-plus seasons for his opportunity at USC. Now, back in that lakeside stadium for the first time since that tooth-chipping 2016 upset, Fink was the last scholarship quarterback standing on USC’s sideline, with every hope of playing hero again.

Then, in a cascade of regrettable missteps, Fink fell short and those hopes broke down on a chilly Saturday in Seattle.


With freshman Kedon Slovis still stuck in concussion protocol, the one-time third-stringer’s fearless downfield passing was the reason No. 21 USC managed to upset Utah a week earlier. But against a stout Washington defense that planned for such an approach, those untimely risks proved to be USC’s undoing, as Fink struggled mightily and the Trojans fell 28-14.

Hope was still intact as Fink stood inside the 10-yard line, midway through the third quarter. USC (3-2, 2-1) trailed by two scores in what had so far been an ugly offensive effort, but a 60-yard sprint from Stephen Carr had given the Trojans a spark, putting them in position to score.

As Stephen Carr broke free, sprinting 60 yards up the Husky Stadium sideline, it seemed Clay Helton’s best wishes for offensive balance might actually be granted.

But as Fink surveyed the Huskies defense, he made the wrong read. He spotted Michael Pittman Jr., who’d been his unstoppable top target a week earlier, and he fired away, entirely unaware of the Washington corner watching closely nearby.

“Should’ve handed the ball off,” Fink said after, his eyes welling up. “That’s on me.”

The pass was snatched out of mid-air near the goal line, and with it, so were USC’s chances of turning around its recent road woes.

“You just can’t do it,” offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said of Fink’s interception. “When you play a good football team, if you make mistakes in critical situations like that, odds are you’re going to get beat.”

It took just two plays after that for the Huskies to break the game open, as running back Salvon Ahmed sprinted free on his own long run, taking it 89 yards to the house to give Washington a three-score lead. From there, even as its defense held, a struggling USC offense had dug itself too deep of a hole.

As he sat in front of reporters and cameras, packed tightly into a news conference room, the weight of his mistakes was apparent on the redshirt junior’s face. As he explained his errors, Fink tried his best to stave off tears.

“What it came down to was my decision-making,” Fink said, “and it wasn’t the best, obviously.”

It was hardly the only issue that doomed the Trojans on Saturday. After starting fast and scoring on its opening drive every prior game this season, USC’s first three drives covered just 26 yards. Drive-killing penalties thwarted them again. Special teams were a struggle. And the offense failed to find any meaningful rhythm with its play-calling, as five of its 12 drives lasted three plays or fewer, while only three last longer than six plays.

But in a game in which USC’s defense held strong and its rushing attack roared to life for 212 yards, Fink’s three interceptions were certainly the most crushing of its issues.

In the locker room, there was little coach Clay Helton could do to soften the blow of those missteps. He told the team they’d correct them during the bye week, and that maybe they’d see Washington again in the Pac-12 title game. But there was no mincing words in his message.

“We made enough mistakes to lose the game,” Helton said.

As Washington dropped eight into coverage, Fink struggled to navigate the smaller passing windows, instead opting for mostly dink-and-dunk passes. It was nothing USC hadn’t prepared for, Harrell noted. Though, Pittman contended after that the Huskies’ disguising of coverages had caught them somewhat off-guard.

With the exception of a 44-yard, third-quarter touchdown pass to Pittman, the deep-throwing Fink was rendered mostly ineffective as a result. He finished with 163 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions.

Trojans rally short from 21-point deficit in second half and fall to Washington. It’s up to Clay Helton to make them better.

His counterpart wasn’t much more dynamic, as much-ballyhooed Huskies quarterback Jacob Eason was held to just 180 yards passing by a patchwork USC secondary beset by injuries to Talanoa Hufanga and Olaijah Griffin.

“We had him contained the whole game,” said freshman corner Chris Steele, who filled in for Griffin. But without any crippling mistakes from its quarterback, Washington’s offense continued to find a way.

With time ticking down late in the fourth quarter, Fink stood at the five-yard-line with a sliver of hope still remaining for a USC comeback. A 10-play drive had brought them to the doorstep, and on third down, Fink tried desperately to scramble, only to find a wall of Washington defenders in his way. With one final shot, he threw a fade to the corner of the end zone intended for Drake London, but the pass was broken up.

On the next drive, with USC out of timeouts and in desperation mode, Fink threw his third interception of the afternoon, ending his two-game stretch as quarterback in far less storybook fashion than it started.

“We just have to lock in and not shoot ourselves in the foot,” running back Vavae Malepeai said. “You’re not going to get every call. It’s not going to be a perfect game. But we have to do a better job of bouncing back.”

USC will have an extra week to bounce back before taking to the road again to face Notre Dame. By then, Slovis is likely to return, and Fink will revert to his role as backup, waiting again for his opportunity, his mistakes on Saturday an unfortunate footnote in the strange path that brought him here.