Even when it should be easy, it isn't for USC.
In an astounding turnaround that could have become an atrocious loss, USC held on for a 24-22 victory over Oregon in front of 53,640 at the Coliseum on Saturday when Oregon's Joshua Smith missed a 36-yard field goal with eight seconds left.
Smith's kick was low--partially deflected by the Trojans' Marc Matock--and USC survived after nearly blowing an 18-point halftime lead.
"A win is a win is a win," USC Coach John Robinson said.
On the sideline, the Trojan players could hardly bear to watch: "I had my fingers crossed," tailback Delon Washington said. "I really didn't look until it was veering off to the right."
Matock, a defensive lineman who played on a state championship basketball team for Palma High in Salinas, leaped high to make the play.
"I got just a small piece of it with my right hand," he said.
The victory gave the Trojans a winning record for the first time since early last November, at 4-3, and marked their first successive victories since September of last season.
It very nearly was a loss.
Only a failed two-point conversion attempt by Oregon with 4:11 left kept the Ducks from tying the score earlier. Quarterback Akili Smith's three-yard run cut USC's lead to 24-22 shortly after a defensive holding call against USC on fourth down gave Oregon a first down at the 18.
Coach Mike Bellotti went for two, but Smith's pass intended for LaCorey Collins was broken up by Brian Kelly.
But it wasn't over.
Oregon (4-4) got to the 16-yard line in the closing minute with a 42-yard pass from Smith to Kevin Parker, and might have scored.
But a 15-yard penalty against Oregon for having 12 men on the field set Oregon back to the 31. On second and 25, Smith's pass intended for Donald Haynes in the end zone was broken up by Kelly. On third down, he found Tony Hartley on the sidelines for a 12-yard reception, helping to set up the failed field-goal attempt.
"I'm extremely proud of this team," Bellotti said. "I'm very proud of the spirit and character of this team. In my opinion, we won the game, but not on the scoreboard."
It was yet another game marked by mistakes, plenty by both teams. They combined for 11 fumbles, six by Oregon, which lost two, and five by USC, which lost one.
All but lost amid the near-disaster was the resurgence of Washington, the USC tailback who led all rushers with 130 yards in 25 carries, his first 100-yard game since he gained 152 yards against UCLA on Nov. 18, 1995.
Saladin McCullough, the Oregon tailback who was headed to USC four years ago before an invalidated admissions test score, gained 113 yards in 18 carries.
With a 21-3 lead at halftime, USC seemed as if it was on its way to its first truly easy victory.
But the second half brought trouble for the Trojans, and by the fourth quarter USC's lead was only 24-16, with Oregon on the move.
Safety Rashard Cook made a big play to hold off Oregon when he recovered a fumble at the Trojans' 13-yard line with about 11 minutes to play. Linebacker Chris Claiborne forced the Ducks' Pat Johnson to fumble after a 34-yard reception, and Cook came up with the ball.
Oregon started its comeback attempt in the third quarter when Rashad Bauman picked off a pass by USC quarterback John Fox and returned it 61 yards for a touchdown. With 10:28 left in the third, USC's lead was 21-10.
"Momentum changed after the interception," said Fox, who completed 16 of 28 passes for 175 yards with one touchdown. "It was a bad read by me. I'm still happy with the win, but it's still one of those wins where we almost lost the game."
Adam Abrams' 25-yard field goal with 2:49 left in the third made the score 24-10.
The trouble was just starting, though. A 58-yard reception by Hartley gave the Ducks first and goal at the 9, but USC seemed as if it had dodged a bullet after a near touchdown when it forced a field-goal attempt.
But USC's Prentice Hill was called for roughing the kicker, nullifying the successful kick and giving Oregon another first and goal. This time, Oregon scored a touchdown, with McCullough carrying the ball in from five yards out with 14:53 to play. Smith missed the extra point, leaving the score USC 24, Oregon 16.
That made a competitive game of what once looked like a runaway.
The Trojans drove for touchdowns on three of their first four possessions. By halftime, USC had 139 yards on the ground, attacking Oregon with three runners--Washington, fullback Rodney Sermons and freshman Malaefou MacKenzie, who started at tailback for the second time.
Sermons, a senior who had been pushed out of the starting fullback job by redshirt freshman Ted Iacenda, returned as the starter Saturday and scored two touchdowns, one on a 13-yard run with 7:22 left in the first quarter and the other on a 15-yard pass play with 6:50 left in the first half to help put USC ahead, 21-3.
USC's other touchdown came when receiver R. Jay Soward scored on a reverse from the 13-yard line that helped give USC a 14-0 lead with 1:29 still to play in the first quarter.
"We played flat, but an ugly win is a win just the same," cornerback Daylon McCutcheon said. As for what went wrong, "That's something we'll have to figure out tomorrow."
Around the Nation
* MICHIGAN CLASH
No. 5 Michigan played it close to the vest, but the Wolverines showed their superiority over No. 15 Michigan State, 23-7. C4
* NEAR UPSET
Washington State had to stop a two-point conversion try in overtime to escape with a wild 35-34 victory over Arizona. C6
NO. 1 NEBRASKA: 35
NO. 3 FLORIDA STATE: 47
MISSOURI: 51 (2OT)
NO. 12 OKLAHOMA STATE: 50
NO. 18 IOWA: 62