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Play-Action's Thing for USC

Palmer throws four touchdown passes, three to Williams, in 41-21 victory over Washington that puts Trojans in the Pac-10 race.

October 20, 2002|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

Turns out, USC did not need its running game after all.

The mere threat of another big performance by Trojan tailback Sultan McCullough was more than enough to freeze Washington on Saturday at the Coliseum.

USC exploited the Huskies' respect for the rushing attack and produced several long scoring passes off play-action fakes in a 41-21 victory before 52,961.

The victory, USC's seventh in a row at home, put the No. 19 Trojans in prime position for a run at the Pacific 10 Conference title.

"This was a really big opportunity for us," USC Coach Pete Carroll said. "More important is how it sets us up for next week."

Ah, next week.

USC, which improved to 5-2 overall and 3-1 in the Pac-10, travels to rowdy Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore., next Saturday to play previously unbeaten Oregon, which lost to Arizona State, 45-42.

Arizona State and Washington State are 3-0 in conference play. USC and Oregon are 3-1.

"Oregon and the other teams are going to see the tape," USC offensive lineman Lenny Vandermade said. "If they want to take away the run, we have some receivers that can hurt you."

Wide receiver Mike Williams, making his first start, was the biggest pain for No. 22 Washington, which entered the game with the worst-rated pass defense in the conference

The 6-foot-5, 223-pound freshman from Tampa, Fla., overcame two early drops, caught nine passes for 159 yards and scored on touchdown pass plays of 43, 14 and 11 yards. It was the third consecutive 100-yard receiving game for Williams, who started because senior Kareem Kelly was nursing a sprained right ankle.

"It's no picnic," Williams, who tied a school record with his three touchdowns, said of playing the majority of snaps. "I'm used to rotating with Kareem and making cornerbacks tired. They were rotating a lot of cornerbacks so I never really got a chance to wear one down."

Junior flanker Keary Colbert doubled the Huskies' frustration, catching seven passes for 146 yards, including a 61-yard touchdown. It marked the first time since 1999 that two Trojan receivers finished with more than 100 yards.

McCullough, who ran for 176 yards in 39 carries last week against California and gained 132 yards in 32 carries against the Huskies last season, finished with only 37 yards in 22 carries.

"Their safeties are really aggressive and come up on the run game," said USC quarterback Carson Palmer, who completed 21 of 34 passes for 348 yards and tied a personal best with four touchdown passes. "We knew that we weren't going to run for 150 or 200 yards, but we knew the passing game was going to be there."

USC overcame an intercepted pass on the game's first offensive play and took a 17-7 halftime lead on Palmer's 43-yard pass to Williams, his 61-yard strike to Colbert and a 30-yard field goal by Ryan Killeen.

The 10-point lead provided an unusual cushion for a Trojan team with a penchant for second-half rallies.

"Coaches emphasized all week that we can't sit around and wait for the second half and explode; we have to do that from the beginning," Palmer said.

The Trojan defense took over after Williams extended the lead with his 14-yard touchdown reception on the first possession of the third quarter.

Throughout the week, Carroll preached that the defense needed to come up with more interceptions against its pass-oriented Pac-10 opponents. The Trojans responded with two in the third quarter that led to touchdowns.

Linebacker Matt Grootegoed made the first interception of his career when one of Washington quarterback Cody Pickett's 61 passes bounced off receiver Patrick Reddick's shoulder pads and into Grootegoed's hands. Grootegoed returned it 49 yards to the Washington 26 and a personal foul penalty against the Huskies moved the ball to the 13. Two plays later, Palmer and Williams connected for an 11-yard score.

On the second play of the ensuing possession, All-American safety Troy Polamalu intercepted a pass and returned it 33 yards to the Washington 12. Killeen put the Trojans ahead, 34-7, with a 33-yard field goal with 4:56 left in the third quarter.

Washington (4-3, 1-2 in the Pac-10) pulled to within 34-21 on fourth-quarter touchdown passes from Pickett to tight end Kevin Ware and wide receiver Reggie Williams, but Trojan running back Justin Fargas sealed the victory with a 13-yard touchdown run with 3:23 remaining.

"We finished strong like we always do," Grootegoed said. "We opened the door a little bit, but this time we didn't let them get back into the game."

Pickett completed 34 of 61 passes for 350 yards and three touchdowns. But Washington, averaging 480 yards before the game, was held to 356 yards and finished with minus five yards rushing, the fewest against USC since Oregon had minus 10 in 1992.

"We were plagued by the things that have plagued us all year -- big plays and the inability to run the ball," Washington Coach Rick Neuheisel said.

Sophomore end Kenechi Udeze recorded a sack, three tackles for losses and blocked a field-goal attempt to lead a Trojan defensive line playing without injured tackle Shaun Cody.

Senior Bernard Riley filled in, played most of the game and started looking ahead a few minutes after it was done.

"Look out, Oregon," he said. "Here we come."

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Who's No. 1?

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