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.
With Washington’s defense sitting back in zone, mucking up the deep part of the field, there was room to be found on the ground. The Trojans ultimately ran for 212 yards in 33 carries, with Carr, Vavae Malepeai and Markese Stepp all successfully sharing the load. It was far and away their best rushing performance of the season.
But a balanced offense wasn’t enough on Saturday, as Washington forced turnovers through the air and several drives died on the vine.
“I thought the running game was very much improved,” Helton said. “We challenged both the whole offensive line and the runners, that they were going to have to step up big. Felt like they were going to play their safeties deep and corners deep the majority of the day. They did.”
That left plenty of room for the running backs to operate, and each had their own highlight plays. Carr, who led the team with 94 net yards, nearly scored on his 60-yard run. Malepeai carried the load early and was probably the most consistent as he ran for 49 yards in 10 carries.
Stepp, whose earning more work with each successive week, tore off a 35-yard run, while averaging 6.2 yards per carry.
In all, USC rumbled to 212 yards and a touchdown, but even a 6.4 yards-per-carry average wasn’t enough to make up for crucial mistakes in the passing game.
“They tried to force us to run the ball,” offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said. “I thought the O-line and the running backs, we did some good things.”
Their leading tackler, Talanoa Hufanga, was out. Their most aggressive cover man, Olaijah Griffin, was sidelined.
But in spite of those absences, USC’s shorthanded secondary stood tall again on Saturday, shutting down an opposing quarterback for the second straight week. Washington’s Jacob Eason, who USC players and coaches anticipated would be the best quarterback they’d faced this season, was held to180 yards passing, without a touchdown.
“I think [the game plan] definitely worked,” said freshman Chris Steele, who started in place of Griffin. “He has tendencies that we really studied on film. He likes to roll out to the left when pressure is coming. We had him contained the whole game.”
For one quarter, USC’s secondary was actually down three of its usual starters, as nickel back Greg Johnson was suspended for the game’s first 15 minutes for a violation of team rules.
In his place, freshman Max Williams made his collegiate debut as USC’s starting nickel back and forced a fumble at the goal line. That fumble was recovered for a Washington touchdown, but the freshman’s play left an impression, anyway.
Punter Ben Griffiths, who has struggled at times in his first season, opened the game with disastrous punts of 24 and 35 yards. The latter gave Washington great field position, which it turned into a touchdown.
But after punting a season-high six times on Saturday, Griffiths actually managed to even out his average for the day, raising it to 41 yards per punt.
He booted one 54 yards, while four of his six ended up inside the 20.
Not that that will stave off concern about the Aussie punter, whose booming kicks in camp initially turned heads.
After praising its work in the red zone last week, USC’s defense allowed Washington to convert on all four of its red zone trips on Saturday. … Over the last two weeks, USC’s defense has allowed 440 rushing yards. ... There were four unsportsmanlike conduct penalties called between USC and Washington, all four of which were thrown for celebrations.