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Secondary Survives First Test of Season

October 01, 2006|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

PULLMAN, Wash. — In the final seconds of the game, as Taylor Mays jumped to intercept a pass that would preserve a victory for his team, the USC safety knew he was making a mistake.

On that particular play, the freshman was supposed to hang back and guard against a tipped ball.

"I just saw the ball in the air and wanted to catch it," he said. "If I'd dropped it, I would have gotten killed."


His secondary coach, Rocky Seto, later nodded.

"I would have killed him."

It was that kind of night for the Trojans' defensive backs, under siege from an insistent passing attack, getting torched more than once but hanging on to help No. 3 USC win, 28-22, over unranked Washington State.

"This was a real humbling experience," said cornerback Terrell Thomas, who would finish tied with a team-high nine tackles. "It brings you back to earth."

Thomas had the worst of it early. He had costly penalties for pass interference and grabbing the face mask in the first quarter. There was a second-quarter play in which he jumped the slant route, only to watch Cougars receiver Jason Hill dart outside for a touchdown catch.

There were plenty of other lowlights for the defense. Pass interference calls against Mays and Cary Harris. A fourth-quarter drive in which Washington State flew downfield in less than two minutes to set up a close finish.

In all, Cougars quarterback Alex Brink completed 26 of 46 passes for 287 yards and two touchdowns. Receiver Michael Bumpus caught a career-high 11 of those passes for 112 yards.

"We just run our offense, just getting open," Bumpus said. "Alex did a great job of reading and putting the ball where it needs to be."

This was the first real test for a Trojans secondary that had faced lukewarm offenses the last three games. Even Nebraska, with its revamped West Coast scheme, had turned surprisingly tame at the Coliseum, throwing only 17 times.

Washington State, on the other hand, possessed the 18th-best offense in the nation, gaining more than 428 yards a game, and showed no hesitation throwing the ball.

After Hill's touchdown play scored for the Cougars -- coaches told Thomas to play the slant -- USC went into halftime with a slim 14-12 lead.

Seto made a point of walking up to each defensive back, looking into his eyes. Amid the blown coverages and penalties, he was looking for a silver lining.

"I wanted to see the resolve," he said. "I wanted to see if these guys would stick with it."

In the third quarter, with Washington State only a few yards from the end zone, Thomas stayed tight on the same inside-out move that had beaten him earlier. The pass sailed incomplete and the Cougars settled for a field goal.

And after USC surrendered that quick score with four minutes left, the defense pulled together for Washington State's last-gasp drive.

Asked about the Trojans, Brink said, "When you make plays in key situations, that is going to separate you from everybody else."

Seto wanted to use this game as a learning experience.

"The good part?" he said. "We withstood."

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