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Trojans: He brings back kickoff 58 yards in final minutes to seal 31-21 victory over Cougars.


After Washington State gained the momentum and positioned itself to possibly end 35 years of frustration by defeating USC on Saturday at the Coliseum, the Cougars made an almost unthinkable error.

They put the ball into the hands of USC's Curtis Conway.

And Conway, who had scored earlier on a 24-yard run and a 27-yard pass reception, made the Cougars pay for their mistake, returning a kickoff 58 yards to set up the final touchdown of a 31-21 Trojan victory.

"We were playing well enough that we felt like we could come back," said Washington State quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who led an offense that accumulated 502 yards before a crowd of 54,038. "We were only down by three, but when he got that return, it broke our back."

Washington State, trying to overcome a 24-7 deficit, drove to within eight yards of USC's

end zone four times during the second half but scored only two touchdowns, the second on a 34-yard pass from Bledsoe to Deron Pointer that pulled the Cougars to within 24-21 with 3:19 to play.

A squib kick seemed imminent.

Instead, kicker Aaron Price, son of Cougar Coach Mike Price, lofted the ball high down the left sideline.

Conway, anticipating a short kick, charged the ball before Price kicked it and took it out of the air at the 30-yard line.

"Once I caught the ball, I saw a hole and I tried to get as much yardage as I could," Conway said. "Once I got through the hole, I saw a lot of daylight and I tried to make as much happen as I could."

Conway cut back to his left and, despite having his facemask pulled by a defender--an infraction that was not noticed by the officials--wasn't brought down until he reached the Cougar 12.

Two plays later, USC fullback Wes Bender slammed through the left side of the line and scored on an eight-yard run.

The Cougars' backs were broken.

Not so USC's home winning streak against the Cougars. The Trojans, who ran their record to 4-1-1 overall and 3-1 in the Pacific 10 Conference, haven't lost to Washington State at the Coliseum since 1957.

Washington State, which was 6-0 for the first time since 1930 and 3-0 in conference play for the first time since 1942, suffered its 13th consecutive Coliseum loss.

The 13th-ranked Cougars--they haven't been ranked higher since 1958--squandered the performance by Bledsoe, who completed 24 of 37 passes for 358 yards and two touchdowns, with one interception.

"My impression of him has not changed one bit," said USC Coach Larry Smith, who praised Bledsoe during the week before the game. "He is a superstar. You ask our defense--they'll tell you."

Bledsoe completed his first nine passes, including four for 81 yards during a 75-yard touchdown drive on the Cougars' third possession. A one-yard run by Bledsoe gave Washington State a 7-0 lead.

But USC then scored 24 consecutive points:

--A 24-yard run by Conway on a reverse ended a 49-yard drive by the Trojans that pulled them into a 7-7 tie with 1:42 left in the first quarter.

--A seven-yard run by Estrus Crayton ended an 82-yard, 13-play drive, probably the most impressive of the season by the Trojans, and gave USC a 14-7 lead midway through the second quarter. The Trojans, last in the Pac-10 in rushing, gained 60 yards on the ground during the drive.

--A 27-yard pass from Rob Johnson to Conway made it 21-7 with 27 seconds left in the half, ending an 85-yard drive during which Johnson completed four of five attempts for 78 yards.

--A 27-yard field goal by Cole Ford ended USC's first possession of the second half, giving the Trojans a 24-7 lead.

Washington State cut its deficit to 24-14 on its next possession, when Bledsoe passed nine yards to Alex Schexnayder for a touchdown.

Jerald Henry cut short the Cougars' next possession, stepping in front of Schexnayder and intercepting Bledsoe's pass at the goal line.

The Cougars' next possession also ended badly. After Bledsoe was sacked for a seven-yard loss by linebackers Brian Williams and Donn Cunnigan on second and goal at USC's five-yard line and then overthrew Schexnayder on third and goal from the 12, Price missed a 29-yard field-goal try.

"The defense came up with some key plays to keep them out of the end zone and helped us keep up the cushion," Smith said.

USC missed a chance to add to its lead when it failed to score on four rushing attempts after reaching the Cougars' seven.

After Trojan tailback Dwight McFadden was stopped for no gain on fourth and goal at the one, Bledsoe moved the Cougars back down the field, leading a 99-yard drive that seemed to swing the momentum toward Washington State.

But after Pointer caught a 34-yard touchdown pass, giving the Cougars the first fourth-quarter points yielded by USC this season, the Cougars kicked to Conway.

USC assistant Gary Bernardi, co-coordinator of the Trojans' special teams, was given credit for anticipating the short kick.

"He has only kicked about one or two into the end zone," Bernardi said of Price, "so I didn't think he could kick beyond (Conway). So, when (Price) approached the ball, we just had (Curtis) charge."

Bernardi was asked if he would have made the same kick. "You can answer that," he said, smiling.

So could the result.

* MIKE DOWNEY: Washington State's Drew Bledsoe is a quarterback with a bright future. C3

* CURTIS CONWAY: The Cougars lose a game of keep away on a crucial kickoff. C8

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