Caple’s Takeaways: Huskies still unbeaten after shootout with USC

Nov 4, 2023, 9:52 PM | Updated: 10:06 pm

UW Huskies USC Dillon Johnson...

Dillon Johnson of the UW Huskies celebrates a touchdown against USC on Nov. 4, 2023. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — The No. 5 UW Huskies pulled away for a 52-42 victory over the No. 20 USC Trojans at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday.

Recap: Johnson runs all over USC as No. 5 UW Huskies win 52-42

Here’s what you need to know.

Defense optional

The over/under for this game wound up at 76.5 points, which the Huskies and Trojans threatened to surpass in the first half. As it was, they hit the over with 4:21 to play in the third quarter, when Michael Penix Jr.’s 1-yard quarterback sneak gave UW a 42-35 lead.

The teams combined for 1,087 yards of total offense (572 for UW, 515 for USC) and nearly half of that came on the ground. Penix and USC quarterback Caleb Williams — the reigning Heisman Trophy winner — still put on a show. Williams finished with 312 passing yards and three touchdowns plus one rushing, and Penix completed 22 of 30 passes for 256 yards and two touchdowns, plus a rushing score.

It was UW tailback Dillon Johnson, though, who put forth a performance that will long be remembered among the Huskies’ best ever against USC. He rushed for a career-best 256 yards — fifth-most in UW history — and four touchdowns on 26 carries, finding wide-open running lanes from the first quarter through the fourth. His stat line included gains of 53, 52 and 33 yards.

“The whole goal this week was to establish the run game,” said Johnson, a transfer from Mississippi State, “and that’s what we did. … We just wanted to be the most physical team. The last two weeks we haven’t played up to our standards, and we wanted to come out and be the most physical team.”

Heisman moment

Penix didn’t put up his most impressive stat line of the season, largely due to UW’s dominance in the running game. But he did turn in one play that was indicative of his status as a top Heisman Trophy contender.

Facing third-and-18 early in the second quarter, Penix spun away from what appeared to be a sure sack, rolled to his left, then heaved a throw to tight end Devin Culp in the end zone. Culp made an outstanding effort to wrestle it away from a USC defender for a 22-yard touchdown that tied the score at 14-14.

“I just had to leave the pocket, and got my eyes up and saw him in the back of the end zone behind everybody else,” Penix said, “and just gave him a shot at the ball.”

UW Huskies get one big turnover, two big sacks

While nobody would submit this game as evidence of good defense on Montlake, the Huskies did make a couple of game-changing plays on that side of the ball.

The first came late in the first half, when edge rusher Zion Tupuola-Fetui got to Williams in the backfield. He didn’t bring him down, but he did strip the ball, and UW’s Bralen Trice recovered at USC’s 12-yard line.

Three Johnson rushes later, the Huskies had taken a 35-28 lead, and they carried that margin into halftime.

“It was in our scouting report that (Williams) is pretty loose with the ball,” said Tupuola-Fetui, who added another half-sack later in the game.

UW’s second crucial sack came with USC facing a third-and-13 at UW’s 30-yard line in the fourth quarter, with the Huskies leading 45-42. UW defensive lineman Voi Tunuufi brought Williams down for a 12-yard loss, forcing USC’s second and final punt of the game.

Johnson broke off his 53-yard run on UW’s first play of its next possession, and capped the 91-yard scoring drive with a 1-yard touchdown run.

“I do feel like we have the makings of what it takes to be a championship football team,” said coach Kalen DeBoer, “and it’s going to take all phases — offense, defense and special teams.”

Pac-12 title implications

The victory makes a Washington-Oregon rematch in the Pac-12 championship game even more likely.

The Huskies (9-0 overall, 6-0 conference) are the only unbeaten team in Pac-12 play, and the Ducks (8-1, 5-1) now are the only one-loss team, meaning Washington has a two-game lead in the loss column over the next-closest teams with three games to play. Oregon beat Cal 63-19 on Saturday, and hosts USC next week. The winner will take the inside track as UW’s most likely opponent in Las Vegas, barring a Huskies collapse over the next three weeks.

Tricky competition awaits. UW hosts No. 18 Utah next weekend, then travels to face No. 16 Oregon State the following week before hosting Washington State in the Apple Cup. But the Huskies will likely be favored in each game, and can lose at least one and still be assured of a spot in the Pac-12 title game.

This column from UW Huskies football insider Christian Caple is exclusive to Seattle Sports. Subscribe to for full access to Caple’s in-depth Husky coverage.

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