ARLINGTON, Tex. — When Denis Lynch’s field goal put USC up by 15 with 4:30 left in the Cotton Bowl, it felt like the Trojans should have the game wrapped up. It would take a perfect storm of events for Tulane to have a chance.
But that is exactly what happened.
It took only 23 seconds for Tulane to score a touchdown, with Deuce Watts picking up 59 yards on a reception and Tyjae Spears punching it into the end zone the next play. Then Mario Williams fumbled the kickoff out of bounds at the USC 1. Rather than a quick pass to gain breathing room, USC ran the ball twice, and on the second play Austin Jones was tackled in the end zone for a safety.
So Tulane ball at its own 34 with 3:13 to go, trailing 45-36. The Green Wave converted two fourth downs, completed two 24-yard passes to get to first-and-goal, then Alex Bauman caught a pass through an Eric Gentry challenge that, after review, was confirmed as a touchdown.
The extra point gave Tulane its first lead of the game with nine seconds left. When USC’s final play with several laterals was stopped 90 yards short, the Trojans found themselves on the losing side, 46-45.
For all USC’s talk of an improved defense after a month of bowl prep, though, it looked like more of the same against Tulane. Spears ran for 205 yards on 17 carries, making USC’s defenders look like high schoolers trying to tackle Barry Sanders. Tulane averaged 10.4 yards per play.
The Trojans had no issues moving the ball with Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams directing the offense. The Trojans converted nine of their first 10 third downs, and Williams snuck forward for a conversion on fourth down on the lone failed attempt.
On the opening possession, USC broke a Cotton Bowl record with a nine-minute, two-second drive. The Trojans moved 75 yards on 17 plays, ending with a screen pass to Michael Jackson III for the TD. Williams was able to move around and avoid pressure, though not with his typical burst.
Still, he was able to buy an incredible 11 seconds when USC faced third-and-22 on its second possession, thanks in part to a strong second-effort block by guard Gino Quinones. It was enough for Williams to throw the ball up to Brenden Rice at the goal line. Rice stepped up to beat a corner to the ball and make the 30-yard gain, setting up a Terrell Bynum TD.
Rice set his season-high with 81 yards in the first half alone, finishing the game with a career-high 174 yards on six receptions. He entered the day with two TDs this season, and grabbed two more in the Cotton Bowl. He worked hard to get open, then made elusive moves with the ball in his hand to keep pushing forward.
After USC took a 14-0 lead, Tulane tied the game with touchdowns on its next two possessions, with Tyjae Spears moving the Green Wave down the field for the first score and Jha’Quan Jackson tying a Cotton Bowl record with an 87-yard touchdown after Williams’ interception. Rush edge Korey Foreman dropped back in coverage on the play and slipped as Jackson made the catch, then sprinted downfield.
But USC responded with a quick touchdown, with freshman Raleek Brown going 39 yards for the score. After a Tulane drop on third down, USC got the ball back with 1:19 left in the half, Williams found Rice for a 35-yard gain then again crossing the back of the end zone for a touchdown to make it a 14-point lead at the half.
It was tough to decide which of Rice’s catches was the most impressive. It could have been the long third-down conversion, or a fingertip grab for 74 yards to get USC out of the shadow of his own end zone.
Or his second touchdown catch, in which he ran across the field as Williams scrambled, stayed in bounds at the one and reached it across the pylon for the score.
But it was all for naught as the Trojans collapsed in the final minutes.
Cotton Bowl live postgame updates: Tulane stuns USC
No. 17 Oregon women dominate USC
USC men’s basketball falls to Washington State
USC hopes to use Cotton Bowl as springboard to bigger goals
No. 10 USC vs. No. 16 Tulane: Who has the edge in the Cotton Bowl?