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Trojans Go From Bad to Worst

College football: Washington State's 33-27 victory leaves USC with no shot at a bowl game and alone in last place in the Pac-10 at 1-6.


Maybe there was a hint of desperation in the cool evening air.

With one last shot at a winning record, USC turned to a quarterback who had not thrown a pass all season. The team gambled on fourth downs and tried an onside kick with plenty of time remaining.

Whatever the Trojans tried, it was too little, too late.

By losing, 33-27, to Washington State at the Coliseum on Saturday, USC has no chance to finish above .500 and, therefore, no hope of going to a bowl game.

Their once-promising season, which began with three victories and a No. 8 ranking, is now officially buried under a mountain of inconsistent play. "Sometimes it's gravy and we're looking good," a frustrated tailback Sultan McCullough said. "Sometimes we just look like . . . "

And on a night when USC needed its best effort, the team came out flat and could not recover, not even with some late heroics from little-used quarterback Mike Van Raaphorst.

"This is a game we could have won," Coach Paul Hackett said. "I don't know what happened."

The criticism of Hackett, which ebbed a little after last Saturday's victory over Arizona State, should reach a crescendo now that his team is alone in last place in the Pacific 10 Conference.

His detractors got a head start on Saturday, the crowd of 40,565 becoming disgruntled early on.

The Trojans (4-6, 1-6) had a chance to gain the upper hand when linebacker Zeke Moreno hit Washington State running back Dave Minnich in the backfield late in the first quarter, knocking the ball into the arms of defensive lineman Shamsud-din Abdul-Shaheed.

But it was only a tease.

Receiver Kareem Kelly, struggling to reach the goal line on a short pass, squandered the opportunity by fumbling the ball through the end zone.

A few minutes later, Kelly suffered another miscue, jumping to catch a pass from quarterback Carson Palmer, only to have the ball ricochet off his chest and into the arms of a defender.

"I was just out of sync," he said.

Washington State (4-6, 2-5) capitalized on that mistake when receiver Milton Wynn ran a reverse 25 yards for a 6-0 lead.

The play was significant for two reasons. First, it resembled so many touchdowns USC has surrendered this season, the defense forced to defend a short field. Second, it typified a night on which the Cougars, known best for their passing attack, found unexpected success on the ground.

They outrushed USC 130 yards to 91. Minnich, who carried 20 times for 88 of those yards, did most of his damage after breaking a tackle or two.

The Cougars also got help from their special teams.

Late in the half, James Price broke through the line to block a USC punt. Jeremy Thielbahr kicked and pushed the ball into the end zone, where he finally fell on it. The two-point conversion failed, but Washington State led 12-0.

The Trojans could not put a dent in that score, not with Palmer completing only 12 of 26 passes, not with his receivers dropping balls, not with McCullough held in check.

Walking off the field at halftime, the crowd booing his team, Van Raaphorst heard the coaches talk about changing quarterbacks. In the locker room, the rumor was confirmed.

"I just felt we were very stale in the first half," Hackett said. "The team needed a jolt."

Van Raaphorst's entrance at the start of the third quarter provided just that, bringing a cheer from the crowd. The senior scrambled 16 yards for one first down and completed a short pass for another. Then he threw a 34-yard touchdown strike to Kelly.

And when the Trojans got the ball back, he drove them to the Washington State 11-yard line, where they faced a fourth and one.

Earlier this season, Hackett was criticized for being too conservative. This time, he decided to go for a first down but called a run into the middle of the line that was stopped short.

It was a crucial point in the game, made even more so when Washington State responded with a quick strike. Quarterback Matt Kegel, getting the first start of his career, threw down the left sideline where Marcus Williams outraced cornerback Chris Cash for the ball, going 88 yards to give his team a 19-7 lead.

"I think we came out here today and played with a lot of pride," said Kegel, who was an unspectacular 12 of 32 for 242 yards with no turnovers. "Thankfully, we were able to come out and score a few points when we needed them."

Not that USC was done. After the teams traded fumble returns for touchdowns, making the score 26-14, USC tried an onside kick with 9:05 remaining. The Trojans failed to recover but the defense held and Van Raaphorst kept charging.

"I've been in this offense long enough to know what to do," said the backup, who had not played since midway through last season.

With 4:28 remaining, he completed a 30-yard touchdown pass to Steve Stevenson to close the gap to 26-20. Then, after the defense held again, USC got the ball back on its own 20-yard line.

But the spark had died and there were no more surprises to throw at Washington State. On fourth down, Van Raaphorst was buried under a Cougar blitz.

The defense was on the field, its back to the goal line again, and Washington State scored. The best USC could do was add a touchdown for pride with no time left.

The Trojans had slipped to itheir worst conference record since 1957 and had lost to the Cougars for only the seventh time since 1921. Kelly was embarrassed.

"Losing to Washington State," he said. "They're not a bad team, but . . . "

USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett, asked afterward about the future of his coach, offered another in a series of terse answers.

"Anything I can tell you now," he said, "won't be very good."




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