Tuli Tuipulotu devours quarterbacks: Takeaways from USC’s win over Washington State

USC defensive linemen Tuli Tuipulotu raises an arm near other USC players and a Washington State player on the ground.
USC defensive linemen Tuli Tuipulotu (49) and Brandon Pili (91) celebrate after sacking Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward (1) on Saturday at the Coliseum.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Entering the season, it seemed the most pressing concern facing USC’s defense was the Trojans’ pitiful pass rush.

A fleet of accomplished pass rushers didn’t arrive en masse via the transfer portal. One of two transfers, Romello Height, had season-ending shoulder surgery shortly after the season kicked off. Suddenly, a position with scant depth was down to its bare bones.

But after six games under Lincoln Riley, only a few teams in college football have managed to sack more quarterbacks than USC this season. Its 24 sacks have already surpassed the Trojans’ 12-game total from 2021 (21).

The USC defense, which has struggled to keep opponents in check this season, proved its worth in the No. 6 Trojans’ 30-14 win over Washington State.

Oct. 8, 2022

So how exactly did USC turn its pass rush from one of the Pac-12’s worst into one of the nation’s best overnight? Part of that answer came screaming around the edge in the first quarter Saturday night.


It took Tuli Tuipulotu one stutter step to push his way past a Washington State right tackle before barreling toward quarterback Cam Ward for the sack. Two plays later, on third down, Tuipulotu broke free again for a second takedown.

A third sack — not to mention 4.5 total tackles for loss — would only accentuate what’s become apparent through six weeks: Tuipulotu has been one of the best defensive linemen in college football this season.

His seven sacks are already tied for the most by any USC pass rusher during the last five seasons … with six regular season games still remaining.

“You get to the point where you just think he’s going to make a play, and you look at the call sheet, and you just don’t want to get in his way,” said USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch.

Grinch deserves credit for how he’s deployed Tuipulotu this season, moving him inside and out when needed. But Saturday was the most convincing proof yet that Tuipulotu has taken his game to another level in USC’s new defense.

“I’ll do whatever the team wants me to do — so we can get the job done,” Tuipulotu said. “That’s what I love, just winning.”


Here’s what else we learned after USC’s 30-14 win over Washington State:

Standout stand-ins

USC linebacker Ralen Goforth strips the ball from Washington State running back Jaylen Jenkins near the end zone
USC linebacker Ralen Goforth (10) strips the ball from Washington State running back Jaylen Jenkins (29) near the end zone in the second quarter Saturday at the Coliseum.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The hope heading into Saturday was that Shane Lee would be able to play despite the injury that held him out of practice this week. Ralen Goforth didn’t find out until game day that he’d be filling in for USC’s defensive captain, who wore a cast on his arm during Saturday’s win.

“It was just something where, whenever I get my opportunities, make the most of it,” Goforth said.

The senior linebacker did just that Saturday, filling in just fine for Lee as he led the Trojans in tackles (8).

“Ralen stepped up and had an amazing game,” fellow inside linebacker Eric Gentry said.

No. 6 USC beat Washington State 30-14 on Saturday to improve to 6-0 as coach Lincoln Riley and the Trojans continue to build a winning pedigree.

Oct. 8, 2022

He wasn’t the only reserve asked to step into a bigger role. Grinch said he thought Bryson Shaw and Anthony Beavers performed admirably at safety after Calen Bullock was ejected for targeting.

Riley said he didn’t sense any wavering from the defense when USC found itself down two of its top defenders.

“Just seeing the huddle after Calen [Bullock] got kicked out of the game. It was like ‘OK, what’s next?’” Riley said. “Just keep responding. Don’t judge it, positive or negative. It’s just respond, respond, respond, and I think the further we go, hopefully we’ll continue to trust that more and more, and it’ll be very, very key.”

Penalty luck

USC receiver Mario Williams celebrates after catching a 38-yard touchdown pass against Washington State
USC receiver Mario Williams celebrates after catching a 38-yard touchdown pass against Washington State during the first quarter Saturday at the Coliseum.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

On a crucial, third-quarter drive, with USC leading by just a field goal, Caleb Williams faked a handoff, then threw a pass to the sideline intended for receiver Kyron Hudson. But Washington State corner Chau Smith-Wade jumped the route and came down with it.

The interception, just the second Williams has thrown this season, might’ve marked a major momentum shift … had it counted.

A defensive holding penalty instead wiped the slate clean on Williams’ pick. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty tacked on an additional 15 yards, putting USC just outside the red zone. Four plays later, the quarterback hit a streaking Mario Williams for a 24-yard touchdown that ultimately put the game out of reach.

When UCLA and USC play later this season, they could both be ranked in the top 10 for the first time since 1988. That’s great for both programs.

Oct. 9, 2022

Each of USC’s three touchdown drives, in fact, would benefit from similarly well-timed penalties. A third-and-4 offsides penalty would keep USC’s opening drive alive, only for Mario Williams to catch a 38-yard score four plays later to take the early lead.

After two consecutive three-and-outs, USC seemed certain to stall when faced with a third-and-19 late in the second quarter. But an offsides penalty gave back five yards, before a defensive pass interference call on Washington State would give USC the ball on at the 4-yard-line. Travis Dye scored on the next play.

Had those penalties not been called, who knows where those drives might’ve ended.

“We just made some mistakes in key crucial situations that really hurt ourselves,” Washington State coach Jake Dickert said.

Grind it out

USC running back Travis Dye pushes through a tackle attempt by Washington State's Andrew Edson and Ron Stone Jr.
USC running back Travis Dye (26) pushes through the attempted tackles by Washington State’s Andrew Edson (95) and Ron Stone Jr (10) during the second half Saturday at the Coliseum.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Dye has never really been considered a workhorse, no matter how prolific he proved himself to be at Oregon. But against Washington State, that’s exactly what Riley asked him to be.

Dye carried the ball 28 times during USC’s win, tied for the second-most totes in a single game during his career. It was just the fourth time in his career he had more than 20 rushing attempts.

Fourteen of his carries came in the fourth quarter alone, as USC turned to Dye to grind out the clock.

“He’s a tough player,” Riley said. “He’s a very reliable player. I just have a lot of trust and faith in what we’re going to get out of him each and every week.”

Asked what was working on the ground, Dye gave all the credit for his 149-yard performance to USC’s offensive line.

“The O-line was identifying everything and blocking it,” Dye said. “It was wonderful tonight.”