The USC Trojans were ranked 25th in the AP rankings entering Saturday's game against Washington State, but after a shocking 10-7 upset loss, Lane Kiffin's team is headed for a tumble.
It was a defensive struggle that exposed the instability of USC's quarterback situation and also saw superstar wide receiver and returner Marqise Lee get bottled up by the Cougars defense.
Kiffin calls the offensive plays and deployed an extremely conservative game plan for initial starter Cody Kessler. It contributed greatly to Lee's underwhelming performance, which consisted of three carries for negative-three yards and seven receptions for a lousy 27 yards.
USC is trying to beat Wash St with a conservative, short pass, run-based O focused on limiting TOs and relying on defense. And LA hates it.— Joe Schad (@schadjoe) September 8, 2013
After the first 30 minutes, it became clear that Kessler wasn't getting the job done under center.
After guiding a touchdown drive earlier in the second quarter to put USC up 7-0, Kessler threw a horrendous slant pass that was picked off by Damante Horton, who took it 70 yards to the house, helping to tie the game with just 27 seconds left in the first half.
That proved to be enough for Kessler to be benched.
Not that it helped much, because the more pocket-style passing, stronger-armed Max Wittek was no better. He finished 3-of-8 passing for 13 yards, and his interception to Horton in the final minutes sealed his team's fate.
ESPN Los Angeles' Arash Markazi, who has covered the team for over a decade, said it was the worst he'd seen the Trojans look:
I've covered USC football for 12 seasons. That's the worst they've ever looked on the field and the quickest they've ever exited the field.— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) September 8, 2013
The lone bright spot for USC was running back Tre Madden who carried the rock 32 times for 150 yards and caught two passes for 12 yards.
It's not as though the Cougars offense was an aesthetically pleasing portrait, though. The team's only touchdown came on defense, and the team had eight yards rushing on 22 carries, though some of that negative yardage was attributable to QB Connor Halladay getting sacked.
The difference proved to be on special teams, where Andrew Furney nailed a 41-yard kick through the uprights with 3:03 left to put Washington State on top for good.
The win marked Washington State's first at USC since 2000 and snapped an eight-game losing streak against the Trojans, according to the Fox Sports 1 telecast.
Throughout the game—and also near the end, when the outcome was decided—Kiffin was confronted with sickly serenades from the home Coliseum crowd, calling for him to get the pink slip:
The "Fire Kiffin" chant is really loud as USC takes over at its 12 with 2:58 to play.— Greg Beacham (@gregbeacham) September 8, 2013
Below is a brief analysis of some of the game's most important players, with letter grades to encompass their respective performances.
Marqise Lee, WR, USC: C-
To be fair, the quarterback play was borderline incompetent between Kessler and Wittek. B/R's NFL draft expert, Matt Miller, said evaluators would be wise not to diminish Lee's abilities based on the signal-callers throwing him the ball:
. @cordova_jesse Smart teams won't downgrade Marqise Lee because of stats. Film study shows its a QB problem.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) September 3, 2013
However, the bottom line is that Lee is one of the most electric playmakers in the country and simply didn't perform on Saturday.
Lee gained only 23 yards on 10 total touches, including seven catches for an inexplicably minimal 29 yards. This is a team the Trojans should have beaten, and Lee should have been a bigger factor.
Damante Horton, CB, Washington State: A+
Whether the interception Horton was the benefactor of was a route misunderstanding or just a horribly thrown slant pass is unclear. Horton deserves credit, though, for reading the quarterback's eyes and making a bold play on the ball.
The Cougars secondary held Lee largely in check, but the rest of the field had to be covered when the majority of the focus was on Lee, too.
Since the first interception occurred just barely before halftime, it was the big momentum changer and gave the Cougars life on the road. Horton then iced the game and thus deserves the highest grade.
Tre Madden, RB, USC: A
It seemed as though Madden was the only one who showed up for the Trojans offense. Even without a reliable passing game to complement him, the sophomore back shined.
Will Lane Kiffin be fired as USC's head coach after this season?
Madden was the absolute workhorse and did all the heavy lifting while the physical Washington State defense pummeled away.
Connor Halliday, QB, Washington State: B-
The two interceptions and measly 5.7 yards per pass attempt don't reflect well on Halliday, but he did just enough on a six-play, 56-yard drive that ended with Furney's game-winning field goal.
USC clearly has the superior talent on defense, and preseason All-American Morgan Breslin had two sacks as the Trojans' defensive front got consistent pressure on Halladay for much of the evening.
However, Halliday continued to hang tough amid that turmoil and got the job done with no running game to supplement the already-flimsy passing attack.