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Originally published September 10, 2013 at 5:34 PM | Page modified September 11, 2013 at 8:56 AM

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USC’s conservative strategy, loss to Cougars hard to figure

Five years after beating Washington State 69-0 in Pullman, USC hosted the Cougars and lost at home, 10-7.

Seattle Times college football reporter

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On a cloudy Saturday afternoon in mid-October, 2008, Washington State played a football game of surpassing curiosity in Pullman against USC.

While the Trojans were scoring 69 points near the end of the Pete Carroll era, the crippled Cougars, who had been losing quarterbacks to injury, were just trying to survive. They threw a scant nine passes, recorded four first downs and the only time they crossed midfield was to escape to the locker room.

Justified or not, the strategy resulted in the end of a 280-game WSU scoring streak that was No. 2 in the nation. It was a piercing, defining low point of the Paul Wulff years.

Almost five years later, the programs met again at the LA Coliseum, and over time, I wonder if the night won’t provide sort of a weird symmetry to that game in 2008. No, USC didn’t pull in its horns and assume the fetal position, but the game plan was so conservative it could have been scripted by Ann Coulter, and that doesn’t speak to the execution, which was miserable.

Understand, the Cougars have a good defense, led by linemen Junior Gauta, Toni Pole and Xavier Cooper, but few would call it elite. Nevertheless, WSU limited USC to 193 total yards, fewest for the Trojans in 15 years, and 54 yards passing.

Defensively, the Cougars had a couple of key tenets in a heady game plan: They would consistently drop eight players into coverage and try to keep everything in front. And they worked hard on run fits, having given up too many rushing yards at Auburn and guessing USC would try hard to probe on the ground.

Little did they know how much. With Biletnikoff Award winner Marqise Lee on the roster, USC virtually abandoned the deep ball. Lee ran horizontally more than he did vertically.

Nor was the tight end a target. Sharing time a year ago, Xavier Grimble had 29 catches and five touchdowns. On this night, he caught a single pass for 8 yards.

The quarterbacks, Cody Kessler and Max Wittek, either misread coverage or threw behind receivers. Damante Horton, the WSU cornerback who is Jim Thorpe national defensive back of the week, was able to "squat" on receivers for both of his interceptions because he had safety help behind him.

Tuesday, I asked USC coach Lane Kiffin about the lack of deep balls or throws to the tight end.

“Any time you lose a game, you always would do something different,” he said. “At the same time, we felt once the game started, our defense was going to dominate, and the only way to lose that game was going to be to put the ball in the air a bunch.

“Unfortunately, in the conservative approach, we got into two-minute situations (throwing interceptions), and that’s where we lost the football game.”

Hold that thought. Here’s USC, winner of seven national titles since 1962, lord of all recruiting turf it surveys, playing not to lose offensively against a program that entered the game 12-50 its last 62 times out?

Depth problems related to NCAA scholarship sanctions will no doubt be an issue for USC, but this game wasn’t about numbers or attrition. The Trojans’ starting offensive line is no better than ordinary. Lakes High’s Zach Banner, the five-star Rivals.com offensive-tackle recruit of 2012, never got in the game.

Kiffin declined to say Tuesday what led him to select Cody Kessler the starter for Boston College this week, saying there was “so much negativity“ around Kessler and Wittek already.

To me, that’s code for, “I had to name somebody.” For the life of me, I don’t know how you’d choose one over the other after Saturday night. Kessler? Who wins a job on the strength of throwing a game-turning pick-six?

The team with the best receiver in the nation had a long passing play of 8 yards. Back in that 2008 game with USC, the Cougars had one that went for 10 yards. If Marqise Lee can’t believe it, I’ll bet Kiffin’s old boss, Pete Carroll, can’t either.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

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