SEATTLE — The sun, which is usually hiding when USC plays Washington at Husky Stadium, was out in full force Saturday.
And so were the Trojans, who stayed alive in the Rose Bowl race by beating the Huskies, 37-23, before a crowd of 71,678 and a national television audience.
"It's the sweetest victory I've ever had as a coach," said Larry Smith, who is now in his 12th season as a head coach. "We made a major, major step in our program today."
By winning, USC improved its overall record to 4-2. More important, the Trojans are 3-1 in the Pacific 10 Conference with the prospect of playing their last four conference games at home.
Washington is 4-3 overall and 2-2 in the conference. Since only three teams have ever won the conference championship with two losses, the Huskies were virtually eliminated on a clear, picture-perfect day in the Northwest.
Washington Coach Don James was aware of his team's plight when he said: "Anytime you lose a game that puts you out of the championship race, that's as tough as it gets."
The Trojans have a revitalized offense under Smith and they were the dominant team in the fourth quarter of a game in which momentum surged from one side to the other.
The option was an integral part of USC's offense against Washington and it was evident in the winning 80-yard touchdown drive.
Tailback Steven Webster took a pitchout from quarterback Rodney Peete and turned the corner on a 29-yard run at the outset of the drive.
Then, when the advance was apparently stalled with a fourth and one at the Washington 17-yard line, the Huskies were fooled again by the option.
Webster got outside for six yards, and three plays later, Peete rolled to his right at the nine-yard line and threw to his left, where tight end Paul Green was waiting all alone in the end zone.
That broke a 23-23 deadlock midway through the fourth quarter, and the Trojans put the game out of reach a few minutes later.
Cornerback Greg Coauette intercepted a pass thrown by Chris Chandler and carried it 23 yards to the Washington nine. Three plays later, Webster scored from the one.
USC came into the game as the Pac-10 leader in total offense, averaging 457.2 yards a game. The Trojans came close to that average Saturday, compiling 442 yards, including 319 on the ground.
This is the same Washington defense that allowed Arizona State only 14 yards rushing last week.
Webster was the catalyst for the running game. He gained a career high 182 yards in 40 carries for a 4.6-yard average.
"I never thought I would carry the ball 40 times in my life," Webster said, shaking his head.
He looked like a vintage USC tailback operating behind a vintage USC offensive line.
"I don't think Washington played poorly; we just executed," Smith said. "We controlled the line of scrimmage with our offensive line, and the option put them off balance."
Peete ran the option flawlessly, either pitching the ball at the precise moment or keeping it.
It was Peete's option pitch to freshman tailback Scott Lockwood that provided USC with a 23-20 lead late in the third quarter.
USC was the dominant team in the first half and led, 16-7, at halftime. But Washington surged back with two touchdowns in the third quarter for a 20-16 lead, and it seemed that the Huskies had wrested control of the game.
Then Lockwood, a sprinter from Boulder, Colo., took Peete's pitch and outran the pursuit on a 38-yard touchdown play while hugging the right sideline.
Washington drew even at 23-23 on a field goal early in the fourth quarter before USC bounced back for the clinching touchdowns.
USC had lost five of its last six games here, last winning in 1979, 24-17. Not coincidentally, the sun was shining that day, while it rained on the five later Saturdays that the Trojans lost in Husky Stadium.
When Peete wasn't operating the option, he completed 10 of 17 passes for 123 yards and 2 touchdowns while throwing an interception.
His counterpart, Chandler, was 15 of 33 for 181 yards while throwing 2 interceptions.
"We ran the option more than we had in any other game," Peete said, "and I think they were confused. When they covered me, I just went to the pitch guy."
It was evident that the option disrupted the Husky defense, which was ranked second in the Pac-10 before Saturday's game.
"We didn't think the option would be a major part of their attack," James said. "It was ugly. We made so many mistakes."
USC rebounded from its 34-27 loss to Oregon last week at Eugene, Ore., and the Trojans have one more significant road game before returning home--traditional rival Notre Dame next Saturday at South Bend, Ind.
"We took a hard look at ourselves after the Oregon game," Peete said. "We just didn't have the intensity we should have had. This is the way I always dreamed USC football should be."
John Matsko, USC's offensive line coach, used some psychology on his unit, according to tackle Dave Cadigan, a prospective All-American.
"He said there wasn't much respect for us around the country, and that motivated us," Cadigan said.