The carpet didn’t soar into the sky this time. The genie refused to come out of the lamp.
The magic that produced an upset victory the previous week couldn’t be conjured again Saturday at Husky Stadium, where USC was forced to confront reality in a 28-14 defeat to Washington.
Reality was third-string quarterback Matt Fink throwing a pass that was intercepted at the goal line.
Reality was the defense parting and allowing Washington running back Salvon Ahmed to race untouched for an 89-yard touchdown.
Reality was the Trojans played against a better team and lost.
If the win over Utah eight days earlier inspired optimism, the defeat to Washington elicited a sense of resignation.
USC is not a special team, contrary to what coach Clay Helton has insisted.
Beating a team such as Washington on road would have required a touch of the supernatural. USC didn’t have that Saturday.
The Trojans are a team of fighters, evidenced by how theytrailed by 21 points in the third quarter and came within two yards of reducing their deficit to seven.
They’re also a team that is careless, which is why they committed three turnovers and eight penalties.
“We made enough mistakes to lose the game,” Helton said.
The Trojans aren’t a great team. They’re also not an awful team. They’re a so-so team in a so-so conference, which is why Helton reminded his players in his postgame address that they could play Washington again in the Pac-12 championship game.
The Trojans have a 3-2 record that could drop to 3-3 after a visit to Notre Dame in two weeks. The remainder of their season figures to be more of the same, with moments of excitement interspersed between periods of despair.
That’s the kind of team they are. They certainly were that kind of team Saturday.
The Trojans practically spotted the Huskies 14 points to start the game.
USC’s first two offensive possessions ended with punts by Ben Griffiths that traveled 24 and 35 yards, respectively. Washington scored its first touchdown on a drive that started on USC’s 35-yard line.
An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Washington, coupled with a 25-yard kickoff return by Velus Jones, gave USC decent field position on its ensuing possession. But on the second play of the drive, Fink overthrew receiver Drake London and delivered the football into the hands of Washington defensive back Cameron Williams. The turnover resulted in another Huskies touchdown, this one which increased the home team’s lead to 14-0.
This wasn’t entirely unexpected.
Fink started the season as the No. 3 quarterback on the depth chart, earning an opportunity to play only after JT Daniels went down with a season-ending knee injury and freshman backup Kedon Slovis landed in concussion protocol.
But USC’s ground game was effective, with Stephen Carr, Markese Stepp and Vavae Malepeai combining for more than 200 yards rushing. That created the opening necessary for Fink to connect with Michael Pittman on a 44-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter that cut Washington’s lead to 28-14.
“I loved the way these guys competed,” Helton said. “I love their heart.”
The Trojans didn’t get any closer.
In retrospect, what damaged them were the two times in the second half they move the ball inside of the Washington 10-yard line and failed to score.
In the third quarter, Fink had a pass intercepted at the goal line. A touchdown there and USC would have been down, 20-14. Instead, the deficit increased to 28-7 after Ahmed’s 89-yard run, which was followed by a successful two-point conversion.
And in the fourth quarter, the Trojans had a first and goal at the Washington seven-yard line with the score 28-14. They came up empty again, as Fink failed to complete a pass to a covered London.
By applauding his team’s resolve, Helton acknowledged something other than effort was the problem. He pointed the finger at himself.
“As far as competing and heart and how hard they play, there’s nothing wrong,” he said. “It’s the corrections that we’ll make. And that’s my job. Nobody else’s.
“I ask these kids to be where they’re supposed to be, give their absolute best effort at all times and we’ll do the rest as coaches.”
There’s no other choice. They couldn’t count on magic to guide them to victory on Saturday and they can’t count on it to do so later this season. They simply have to become a better team and that starts with Helton.