Enduring decay. Years of disappointment. A complete mess on the grill.
USC’s performance in the final four minutes of the Cotton Bowl fit the bill as one of the worst losses in the school’s storied history.
In Arlington, Texas, the Trojans were crushed by a green wave and drowned, losing 46-45 to Tulane in the Cotton Bowl Classic.
It was the 1,694th time in the past five seasons that an FBS team led by more than 15 points in the last five minutes, making Tulane the second team to overcome that deficit. This loss leaves an aura of disappointment throughout the season.
Head coach Lincoln Riley said, “This is as tough a loss as I can remember in my career.
Everything has been clarified.
The Trojans maintained a 15-point lead with 4:30 remaining. They just burned the clock, had two Tulane timeouts, and kicked a field goal.
Tulane then quickly scored. Then sophomore receiver Mario Williams scraped the kickoff return, leaving USC at its own 1-yard line. Tulane then packed the run for safety.
“[The safety] Redshirt senior offensive lineman Justin Dedic said. “Our troops didn’t get it done when they needed it most.”
But with USC still leading 45-39 with only one timeout left, Tulane’s touchdown drive was a pipe dream. Still, it happened.
The touchdown came on a 6-yard pass that was initially ruled incomplete. As fans turned to the video board, their lips displayed the collective statement, “He caught it.”
“The line to win after a big game like the finale is very thin and a fine line,” Riley said.
It was the culmination of a year of dominating defense against the Trojans and special team play.
Senior linebacker Shane Lee said, “In your first year, you obviously want to do it all, but you have limited time. ‘It’s hard to do it all from the start.’
The plot of this season’s broken record has come to fruition once again: Can the USC defense get enough stops to help the offense?
The offense did as much as it could: 45 points, 594 total yards, 11-of-15 yards on third downs. Sophomore quarterback Caleb Williams gained his 472 yards with five touchdowns. This is a new Cotton Bowl record.
Williams hooked up with nine different receivers during the game, all of which had at least two receptions. However, it was junior receiver Brenden Rice who stepped up in the absence of junior receiver Jordan Addison. The Colorado transfer had 174 receiving yards on six receptions with two touchdowns. , pulled multiple miraculous grabs in traffic.
“Our job in attack is to score and that’s all we can control,” Williams said.
However, the defense was exhausted and underpowered in tackling, unable to hold up at the end of the contract. USC allowed him 10.4 yards per play. This is a ridiculous number that Tulane may outweigh the fact that he scored 46 points in just his 52 offensive plays.
In Tulane’s infamous spread triple option offense, he ran the ball on nearly every play. And it worked. Junior running back Ty Jespears commanded his will, rushing for his 205 yards for four touchdowns that day.
“Their ability to run a football … rushing over 300 yards. That’s the whole game,” Riley said. “This is what happens when you don’t tackle good players and good running backs.”
Although the game’s score ultimately came down to warp speed, USC’s intent in attacking was clear from the start. Slow and steady win the race. It was a jarringly new approach for a team that had won many games in shootouts.
The first possession of the game was a long possession at 9:02 before Tulane touched the ball.
After a relatively calm first quarter, USC’s efforts to delay playdowns were thwarted in the second quarter, with a total of 35 points scored. The first half was a winning streak, with both teams scoring his 14-0 unanswered run three times.
The Miss Tackle upset that doomed USC’s defense against Utah did the same against Tulane. A whiff in an open field allowed the Greenwaves to reach the goal line before scoring in the second quarter.
On Tulane’s next drive, junior receiver Jaquan Jackson headed a midfield field catch to the outside, leaving at least three USC defenders behind to tie the game for an 87-yard touchdown. He tied the longest touchdown pass in Cotton Bowl history.
It was in many ways a record-breaking loss, a loss that put the momentum of the USC program to a halt, at least temporarily.
Heading into December, the momentum was undeniable. Fresh off back-to-back ranked rival wins, the Trojans were a win away from the College Football Playoffs and a chance to play for a national title at stake. Much, if not all, of that energy is washed away.
“We still have a lot of work to do to be in position to close out the conference championship game,” Riley said.
A crushing loss to Utah in the Pac-12 Championship was just the beginning for USC. Now, the offseason offers an opportunity for renewal. Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch’s job status will be a point of discussion in the offseason.
After seven wins in 2021-22, USC is arguably rising in the power structure of college football.
“The reality is that we’re here and we’re not going anywhere,” Riley said. “We know what we need to improve as a program.”
Still, shaking off losses isn’t easy.
“We put a lot of time into it and get some clarity and instill this,” Riley said. “Then we get back to work.”