PULLMAN – Two weeks ago, after Washington State had to rally dramatically to beat underdog Montana State, Cougars safety Chima Nwachukwu declared, “The defense is going to have to carry this team.”
Houston, we have a problem.
The Cougars, already ranked among the nation’s worst defenses for the third straight year, were torched for a season-high 613 yards in a 50-16 loss to 20th-ranked USC Saturday afternoon at Martin Stadium.
“This is getting really old,” co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball said.
Ya think? It was the ninth time in three years that WSU has yielded 50 or more points.
As usual, tackling was a key issue. Not tackling, to be more precise.
“We didn’t tackle very well, period,” coach Paul Wulff said.
That was never more apparent than on USC’s first play from scrimmage. Fullback Stanley Havili, who has been used so sparingly as a ballcarrier that he had just one rushing attempt this season, bounced off and darted around defenders all the way down the field on a 59-yard touchdown run.
Havili’s TD offset the first opening-drive touchdown by the Cougars since Sept. 20, 2008, against Portland State. Jared Karstetter leaped in the end zone to haul in a flea-flicker pass from fellow wide receiver Jeffrey Solomon to bring a sun-kissed crowd of 24,310 to life.
“We got the place fired up, rocking,” quarterback Jeff Tuel said.
Two plays after Havili silenced the home crowd, WSU fans grew more depressed when the first of Tuel’s three interceptions was returned 25 yards for a touchdown by cornerback Nickell Robey.
“From the beginning of the game, I knew they were going to go after me, since I was a young guy,” said Robey, a true freshman who recorded his first two college interceptions. “They’d try to test me because they think I’m inexperienced.”
The Trojans needed just two plays on their second possession to go up 21-7. Matt Barkley threw the first of his three touchdown passes one play after Havili hauled in a 58-yard pass.
Three straight turnovers by USC (4-0 overall, 1-0 Pacific-10 Conference) gave the Cougars a chance to rally.
The Cougars took advantage only once – Karstetter caught a 6-yard TD pass from Tuel – before USC ran off 29 unanswered points.
“Every time our defense gets a turnover, we need to capitalize,” Tuel said.
The Trojans almost doubled WSU in total yards (613-323). Barkley completed 16 of 25 passes for 290 yards.
Tuel, like Barkley a true sophomore starting for the second year, finished 24 for 37 for 222 yards. Tuel also led WSU’s lackluster running game (67 yards) with 26 yards despite three sacks.
The Cougars (1-3, 0-1) went to their preferred no-huddle offense, which they had scrapped for most of the first three games, citing inexperience. WSU often utilized four receivers, and the Cougars threw deep with mixed results for the second straight week.
“We missed some open touchdowns with some mis-thrown balls,” Wulff said.
The 6-foot-4 Karstetter, who took advantage of a mismatch with the 5-8 Robey on the flea-flicker, caught a career-high eight passes for a team-best 87 yards. Havili, a fourth-year starter, ran for 80 yards and caught five passes for a career-high 107 yards and one touchdown.
The Trojans ran for 285 yards and never punted. One of the most penalized teams in the country coming into the game, the Trojans drew just five flags for 39 yards.
“We were a lot more disciplined today,” coach Lane Kiffin said.
The Cougars slipped to 4-25 in three years under Wulff, including 1-18 in the Pac-10.
USC has defeated the Cougars eight straight times by an average margin of 45-11.
The Cougars visit UCLA (2-2, 0-1) next Saturday in Pasadena, Calif.
Game time is 12:30 p.m. on FSN.