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USC collapses in final minutes of Cotton Bowl loss to Tulane

Tulane fans cheer during the first half of the Cotton Bowl NCAA college football game against Southern California, Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Hodde)

Southern California quarterback Caleb Williams (13) looks to pass during the first half of the Cotton Bowl NCAA college football game against Tulane, Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Hodde)

ARLINGTON, TEXAS – JANUARY 02: Caleb Williams #13 of the USC Trojans throws a touchdown pass against the Tulane Green Wave in the second quarter of the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic on January 02, 2023 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

A vendor sells cotton candy along the 134th Rose Parade route in Pasadena on Monday, January 2, 2023. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Southern California running back Austin Jones runs with the ball during the first half of the Cotton Bowl NCAA college football game against Tulane, Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Hodde)

Southern California running back Raleek Brown is hit while running with the ball during the first half of the Cotton Bowl NCAA college football game against Tulane, Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Hodde)

Southern California quarterback Caleb Williams (13) and head coach Lincoln Riley watch play during the first half of the Cotton Bowl NCAA college football game against Tulane, Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Hodde)

Southern California running back Raleek Brown (14) is congratulated by teammates after scoring a touchdown during the first half of the Cotton Bowl NCAA college football game against Tulane, Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Hodde)

Tulane defensive back Jarius Monroe (11) in congratulated on his teams bench after intercepting a pass during the first half of the Cotton Bowl NCAA college football game against Southern California, Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Hodde)

Tulane wide receiver Jha’Quan Jackson runs with the ball during the first half of the Cotton Bowl NCAA college football game against Southern California, Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Hodde)

Tulane quarterback Michael Pratt looks to pass during the first half of the Cotton Bowl NCAA college football game against Southern California, Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Hodde)

Tulane defensive back Jarius Monroe and linebacker Dorian Williams (2) celebrate after Monroe intercepted a pass during the first half of the Cotton Bowl NCAA college football game against Southern California, Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Hodde)

Southern California wide receiver Michael Jackson III (9) scores a touchdown during the first half of the Cotton Bowl NCAA college football game against Tulane, Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Hodde)

Southern California running back Raleek Brown (14) is tackled while carrying the ball during the first half of the Cotton Bowl NCAA college football game against Tulane, Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Hodde)

Tulane defensive back Jarius Monroe intercepts a pass during the first half of the Cotton Bowl NCAA college football game against Southern California, Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Hodde)

Southern California running back Raleek Brown is congratulated by quarterback Caleb Williams after scoring a touchdown during the first half of the Cotton Bowl NCAA college football game against Tulane, Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Hodde)

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ARLINGTON, Texas — When Denis Lynch’s field goal put USC ahead by 15 points with 4:30 left in the Cotton Bowl, it felt like the Trojans should have the game wrapped up. It would take a perfect storm of events for Tulane to have a chance.

But that is exactly what happened as USC collapsed in stunning fashion in a 46-45 loss.

It took only 23 seconds for Tulane to score a touchdown, with Deuce Watts picking up 59 yards on a reception and Tyjae Spears punching it into the end zone on the next play. The speed with which it happened might have been surprising if it weren’t for how the USC defense played throughout.

For all of USC’s talk of an improved defense after a month of bowl preparations, it looked like more of the same against Tulane. Spears ran for 205 yards and four touchdowns on 17 carries, making USC’s defenders look like high schoolers trying to tackle Barry Sanders. Tulane rushed for 305 yards and gained 234 yards on eight – yes, eight – completions. The Green Wave averaged 10.4 yards per play.

“Our tackling hurt us. And that was the story,” said head coach Lincoln Riley, who suffered the first three-loss season of his career. “You don’t tackle good players and a good running back, that’s what happens.”

With the USC lead trimmed to eight, Mario Williams called for a fair catch on the ensuing kickoff but fumbled the ensuing kickoff out of bounds at the USC 1. The Trojans ran the ball twice, and on the second play, Austin Jones was tackled in the end zone for a safety.

Center Justin Dedich put the blame for that on the offensive line for not getting the job done. But perhaps calling a quick slant pass could have given the Trojans breathing room.

So Tulane (12-2) had the ball at its own 34 with 3:13 to go, trailing 45-38. The Green Wave converted two fourth downs and completed two 24-yard passes (one on a fourth-and-10) to get to first-and-goal with 18 seconds left, then Alex Bauman caught a pass through an Eric Gentry challenge that, after review, was confirmed as a touchdown.

The extra point gave Tulane its first lead of the game with nine seconds left. When USC’s final play with several laterals was stopped 87 yards short, the meltdown was complete.

“As tough a loss as I can remember in my entire career,” said Riley, who lost for the first time in six games coaching at AT&T Stadium. “Losses like this are always tough to digest. I thought our guys really laid it on the line. … And then all three sides there at the end … contributed to it.”

Wasted were a Cotton Bowl-record five touchdown passes by Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams, playing for the first time since injuring his hamstring in the Pac-12 championship game loss to Utah that kept the Trojans from making the four-team College Football Playoff. Williams (37-for-52 passing for 462 yards) was able to move around well and had the offense humming, never punting and suffering just one turnover, a second-quarter interception.

“Our job on offense is to score, that’s all we can control,” Williams said. “We can lead from the sideline, lead when you’re on the field. Other than that, can’t control that.”

Also wasted was Brenden Rice’s career-high 174 receiving yards and two touchdowns, matching his total from the first 13 games. He had a remarkable 30-yard gain on third-and-22, and a finger-tip, 74-yard catch to set up his second score.

Instead of celebrating those performances, or Tahj Washington’s 109 receiving yards or linebacker Raesjon Davis showing his potential or cornerback Mekhi Blackmon closing out his career strong, USC again had to examine what went wrong with its defense on a day when Tulane’s first five touchdown drives took less time combined than USC’s game-opening 9-minute touchdown drive.

USC allowed Tulane to have five runs of 20 or more yards. Five of the Green Wave’s eight completions were for more than 15, including an 87-yard sprint from Jha’Quan Jackson in which rush edge Korey Foreman was inexplicably covering Tulane’s fastest man.

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It raised questions about defensive coordinator Alex Grinch’s future at USC, something that Riley was not prepared to answer on Monday when asked directly.

“We just got done finishing the game 15 minutes ago, so I’m not going to give big-picture assessments,” Riley said. “We gave up the big plays obviously and the lack of not tackling to the level that we would expect are very, very alarming and something we’ve got to do a much better job of.”

Instead, Riley left Arlington with a sour taste in his mouth after an 11-1 start to the year ended with losses on the biggest of stages.

“I’ve rarely at the end of the year felt so conflicted,” Riley said. “On one hand, sick about the way we finished the season. … Now the flip side of it is we were in those positions. … And again, 12 months ago, I don’t think many people on the outside believed that was even possible.”

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