SEATTLE — There was a quiet assuredness, a certainty, to the way Washington moved the ball downfield in the waning minutes.
The Huskies ran for a few yards here, a few yards there. With the USC defense crowding the line of scrimmage, they completed a pass over the middle.
"We were fighting," USC defensive tackle Shaun Cody said. "But if they block you, they block you."
That's what good teams do. And the No. 11 Huskies were good enough to get in position for a 32-yard field goal that won the game, 27-24, with no time remaining. They were good enough on a blustery Saturday afternoon at Husky Stadium to overcome a solid USC performance, maybe the best of the season.
So it was another heartbreaker for the Trojans, whose four consecutive losses--all to teams currently ranked nationally--have come by a total of 14 points. Twice in the last three weeks, they have been beaten by a field goal in the final seconds.
And once again, they were left to search for a silver lining.
"We got so much better today," Coach Pete Carroll said. "It's just so sad our kids can't rejoice in that improvement."
The improvement began with a much-maligned offensive line. A decision was made to establish the run early and the linemen said that helped them find a rhythm. They created enough space for tailback Sultan McCullough to carry a career-high 32 times for 132 yards, more yards than his last three games combined.
As a result, quarterback Carson Palmer could be more choosy, completing all seven of his first-half pass attempts. He finished eight for 14 for 152 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
"We came out a different team today," Palmer said. "I thought we played good across the board."
But USC could not solve all its problems, not a mere week after committing so many errors against Stanford.
When the Trojans took the opening kickoff and drove deep into Washington territory, the coaches eschewed McCullough and called for a Palmer sneak that was stopped cold. On the next possession, Palmer fumbled a snap and Washington recovered.
The play highlighted a surprise decision made only Friday--Norm Katnik starting at center in place of Lenny Vandermade. When asked if he'd had sufficient repetitions with Palmer this week, Katnik said: "Not as many as I usually do."
Whatever the reason for the turnover, it was costly. The Huskies scored four plays later as flanker Todd Elstrom found a seam in the defense and snagged a seven-yard touchdown pass for a 7-0 lead.
USC answered when Palmer beat a linebacker blitz, throwing to fullback Charlie Landrigan, who ran 21 yards for the tying score. A few minutes later, safety Troy Polamalu intercepted a pass from Washington quarterback Cody Pickett and returned it 22 yards for a 14-7 lead.
It was the highlight of another big day for Polamalu, who leads USC in tackles and had a team-high 13 against Washington. He and his teammates seemed to have the upper hand early, especially when they knocked Pickett out of the game with a separated shoulder in the second quarter.
But the Washington defense had an answer, too.
"We threw in a couple of new blitzes," tackle Larry Tripplett said. "I think as a defense we got more accustomed to the feel and flow of what USC was trying to do."
The momentum shifted midway through the third quarter, with USC leading, 17-14. Suddenly McCullough was finding less room, the offense was going three-and-out, punter Mike MacGillivray was hitting balls that sputtered only 30 yards. "The field got real short for them," Carroll said.
The Huskies took confidence from good field position. Running back Willie Hurst was on his way to 102 yards in 19 carries. Reserve quarterback Taylor Barton grew more comfortable with each snap. The second of his two touchdown passes, a 14-yard screen to Hurst, gave Washington a 24-17 lead with five minutes remaining.
There was time for a last USC gasp. Unable to run the ball, the Trojans took shots downfield with the passing game. Receiver Kareem Kelly let a beautifully thrown ball bounce off his hands at midfield, but came back to the sideline begging for another chance.
With 3:47 left, the Trojans ran a double post route and Kelly ran behind two defenders who bumped into each other going for the ball. He made the catch for a 58-yard touchdown play and another tie score.
The Trojans had been in this position before. Driving for a potential winning touchdown against Kansas State. Holding a slim lead against Oregon in the final minute. Roaring back against Stanford. Each time, they had encountered an opponent with the poise to win.
An opponent like Washington. On that final drive, Barton looked at his linemen and said: "Hey, fellas, this is on you. We have got to run the ball and get some first downs."
They needed a pass, too, 18 yards to Elstrom that put them in field-goal range. The rest was up to kicker John Anderson, who had missed a 35-yarder try earlier. This time he kept his head down even after the ball left his foot, not knowing he made the kick until the crowd of 72,946 roared.
That left Carroll with the task of trying to boost his players' morale.
"It isn't a mystery," he said. "You have to make plays at the end of the game."
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HOW THE MIGHTY HAVE FALLEN
USC: Gutty little Trojans are 1-4 for first time since Don Clark era.
Notre Dame: Losing streak finally ends, but 1-3 Irish still the Pitts.
Penn State: Bob Toledo might pass Bryant before 0-4 Joe Paterno.
Oregon State: Mighty Beavers (1-3) fooled everyone with 11-1 season.