ARLINGTON, Texas — USC controlled the 87th Cotton Bowl for most of the afternoon, but the Trojans’ defensive and special teams units faltered down the stretch, allowing Tulane to come back from a 15-point deficit with 4:30 left in the game, capping off an unfathomable 46 -45 win with a 6-yard touchdown with nine seconds remaining.
Green Wave quarterback Michael Pratt completed just eight of his 17 passes, but his final attempt sealed USC’s fate, hitting tight end Alex Bauman over the middle on a play that was initially ruled an incompletion, but overturned by review. The subsequent extra point put Tulane ahead for the first time all day. Despite completing just eight passes, Pratt threw for 234 yards and two touchdowns, averaging nearly 30 yards per completion. Tulane tailback Tayje Spears had 17 carries for 205 yards (12.1 avg) and an incredible four touchdowns.
The late-game heroics by the Green Wave spoiled what could have been a special afternoon for Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams. He finished eight yards shy of his career high, throwing for 462 yards and five touchdowns, completing 37 of his 52 passes. Receiver Brendan Rice had a career day with six grabs for 174 yards and two touchdowns. Tahj Washington added five catches for 105 yards.
The Trojans opened the ball game with an impressive drive, going 75 yards on 17 plays, taking up over nine minutes of the clock. Williams looked like he didn’t miss a beat, evading defenders, finding open receivers and rushing for 10 yards including a fourth-and-1 pickup. He capped the drive with a 9-yard inside screen pass to Michael Jackson III, giving USC the early 7-0 lead. He followed it up with an incredible 95-yard touchdown drive that featured a 59-yard bomb to Tahj Washington and 3-yard touchdown strike to veteran Terrell Bynum. USC went 7 of 8 on third down and converted a fourth down on its opening two drives.
After the fast start for the Trojans, there were hints of the collapse of the Pac-12 championship game in AT&T Stadium. The Trojans gave up a long Tulane touchdown drive that featured several missed tackles, Williams threw an interception ending what looked like another promising drive for USC and the Green Wave quickly punched it in again with an 87-yard catch and run over the middle, tying the score, 14-14.
The Trojans responded with a long scoring drive of their own that featured Raleek Brown with a 14-yard carry followed by a 39-yard touchdown on a run up the middle. After a defensive stop, USC went into halftime with a 14-point lead thanks to a six-play, 68-yard drive just before halftime that took just over a minute with Williams finding Rice. from four yards out.
Tulane faced little resistance to start the second half, going 76 yards in seven plays and scoring on a 7-yard scamper by Tyjay Spears. USC’s tackling continued to be suspect with the Green Wave averaging 10.7 yards per play early in the third quarter. USC was unable to respond after a 46-yard touchdown pass Tahj Washington was overturned and ruled out of bounds on replay. The Trojans missed a 52-yard field goal attempt, giving Tulane great field position to try and tie the game at 28. Former blue-chip linebacker Raesjon Davis got in on the subsequent drive and made a couple of nice tackles, limiting the Green Wave offense to a 42-yard field goal that made the score 28-24 with 4:02 left in the third period.
No one was sure which of the USC receivers would step up in place of Jordan Addison and it turned out to be Rice. With the Trojans pinned deep in their own territory, he hauled in a 74-yard bomb and followed it with a toe-tapping 19-yard grab that was initially ruled out at the 1-yard line, but on replay, he was awarded the touchdown.
After the Trojans pushed their lead to 42-30, Tulane was on the move again thanks to a 32-yard scamper by Spears. But on his next carry Mekhi Blackmonone of the few USC defenders that wasn’t missing tackles, forced a fumble, recovered by Solomon Byrd, giving Caleb Williams and the offense the ball once again.
USC settled for a field goal and appeared to have a comfortable 15-point advantage with just over five minutes left in the game. But Tulane needed just 16 seconds to score in just two plays, cutting the lead to 45-37. Another botched special teams play, calling for a fair catch but bobbing the kickoff out of bounds just outside the goal line, gave USC the ball at its own 1-yard line and Tulane was able to force a safety two plays later, making the score 45-39 with just 3:20 left on the clock.
With a drive to win the game, Tulane overcame an 11-yard Tuli Tuipulotu sack with Michael Pratt scrambling for a first down on a crucial fourth-and-6, keeping the Green Wave’s hopes alive. Pratt was sacked again by Nick Figueroa but still converted on fourth-and-10 to set the Green Wave up at the USC 30. He connected with Duece Watts deep over the middle for 24 yards, giving Tulane a first and goal at the 6- yard line with 18 seconds left in the game. Trojan safety Bryson Shaw made the stop and both players were shaken up.
Two plays later, Tulane scored to secure the victory.
With center Brett Neilon and guard Andrew Voorhees out for the game, the Trojans came out with Courtland Ford back starting at left tackle, Gino Quinones at left guard Justin Dedich moving over to center with Jonah Monheim sliding a spot over to the right guard and Bobby Haskins switching sides, starting at right tackle. Mason Murphy rotated in for Ford at left tackle, coming in for the first time late in the second quarter. Early in the fourth quarter Haskins came out of the game and Murphy took over at the right tackle spot.
This brings the USC Trojans football season, the first of the Lincoln Riley era, to a close. Despite the loss, I just wanted to share what a pleasure it was to cover this team this season, going from years of mediocrity to once again being nationally relevant.
I also want to share how wonderful the Cotton Bowl accommodations have been. They treated this game like it was the national championship and provided VIP treatment from the moment we arrived. From my first private shuttle from the hotel going all the way inside AT&T Stadium right in front of the media press room to the hospitality suite with gourmet food, video games and massage chairs, I would come back here to cover the game just for the experience alone.
As we all get ready for a long offseason, I just want to remind everyone how far this program has come in such a short period of time and while everything isn’t perfect, I believe the future of Troy is bright.
Thank you all for being a part of the Peristyle family. Happy New Year and peace out 2022.