LOS ANGELES — The USC defense started Saturday’s game against Washington State short-handed, with captain linebacker Shane Lee on the sidelines in a cast. Further strain was put on the Trojans when standout safety Calen Bullock was ejected for targeting in the second quarter.
But the sixth-ranked Trojans still had their best defender, Tuli Tuipulotu, on the field. And that was more than enough.
The defensive lineman’s three-sack performance, as well as gutsy play by the defense as a whole, helped carry USC to a 30-14 win over the Cougars as the Trojans improved to 6-0 halfway through the 2022 season.
The USC defense didn’t get the job done with turnovers, which has been the Trojans’ signature this season. Rather, the unit did its best work behind the line of scrimmage with six sacks and nine tackles for loss, 4.5 of which belonged to Tuipulotu.
It was clear from the second drive of the game, when Tuipulotu recorded sacks on first and third down to force a three-and-out, that the junior would be a force to be reckoned with in this game.
Tuipulotu has been the consummate pro for USC, playing much of the first five games at defensive tackle to make up for depth issues at the position. But there he usually occupies blockers to free up teammates rather than make the big play himself.
Despite that, he still led USC with four sacks entering the night.
But the return of tackle Tyrone Taleni has allowed Tuipulotu to slide back out to end, where he is much more likely to get a one-on-one matchup. And when that’s the case, there’s little most offensive tackles can do to combat his combination of strength and quickness.
This was evident on his third-and-three sack in the final minute of the second quarter, when he blew past the left tackle and got to Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward before he knew what hit him.
It wasn’t just Tuipulotu, either. Nick Figueroa had two sacks, and Taleni added one. Ralen Goforth led USC with eight tackles in place of Lee. And Washington State’s 172 passing yards were 117 below the Cougars’ season average.
It was big on a night when the USC offense had as many touchdowns — three — as Denis Lynch field goals.
USC utilized quick passes and short routes to combat Washington State’s notorious pass rush. All six first-quarter pass attempts went to Jordan Addison and Mario Williams, the fastest receivers on the roster.
But the Trojans weren’t afraid to let it rip when necessary. On third-and-16 in the first quarter, quarterback Caleb Williams wanted it all. Rolling to his right, he let a heave go to a wide open Mario Williams at the goal line. The receiver turned and held the ball out over the pylon to complete the 37-yard touchdown play.
But USC’s offense was not as consistent as it usually is. After a field-goal drive, the Trojans went three-and-out on four of their next six possessions.
The Trojans did manage a go-ahead touchdown in that stretch, but only after two Washington State penalties on third down in the red zone gave USC new life.
It was penalties that got USC’s offense back on track in the second half, too. A defensive holding eliminated a Williams interception, and an unsportsmanlike penalty against Washington State moved USC to the WSU 22.
An offensive holding penalty erased what would have been Travis Dye’s second touchdown run of the day, but the next play Washington State jumped offsides. Williams took advantage of the free play by finding Mario Williams sliding in the end zone for a touchdown and a 10-point lead.
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