USC just can’t win a bowl game.
The Trojans had a 15-point lead with just over four minutes remaining, but Tulane’s unrelenting rally shocked the Trojans, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat for a 46-45 victory in the 87th edition of the Goodyear Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium on Monday afternoon.
Michael Pratt’s six-yard touchdown pass to Alex Bauman lifted the No. 16 ranked Tulane to an upset over the No. 10 ranked USC Trojans. USC has not won a bowl game since they defeated Penn State in the Rose Bowl in 2017.
“I’m still trying to soak it all in right now,” said Tulane head coach Willie Fritz. “What a big touchdown there at the end. Alex had the big catch. What a game.”
Pratt authored the ferocious comeback for the Green Wave late in the fourth quarter. After the Trojans went up 15, Pratt found Duece Watts for a 59-yard pass that set up the quick touchdown.
USC started from their own two-yard line on the ensuing drive, and running back Austin Jones was taken down in the end zone for the first safety in the Cotton Bowl since 2009. Suddenly, the once assured Trojans’ victory was in peril.
Now down just six points, Pratt engineered the 12-play, 66-yard scoring drive that stole the victory for Tulane, crowning them 2023 Cotton Bowl champions.
“We actually put ourselves in a phenomenal position to get it done,” said Trojans’ head coach Lincoln Riley of how the final few minutes played out. “And then all three sides right there at the end with the dropped kick-off, and the safety, and then obviously, not getting the stops that we needed defensively down the stretch. All three sides contributed to the loss.”
Despite the loss, USC quarterback Caleb Williams showed why he was the Heisman Trophy Award winner this season.
Still hampered with a hamstring injury, Williams put his arm talent on display throwing for 460 yards and five touchdowns in the loss.
“There’s a reason why he won the Heisman Trophy,” said Fritz of Williams’ performance. “He’s a pretty good player and he’s hard to get down. They’re a great team. They were the 10-ranked team in the country and they’ve got some outstanding players over there. and a really, really explosive offense.”
The Cotton Bowl Classic was just the third meeting between the two teams and the first since 1946. The Trojans are now 1-2 in their Cotton Bowl history.
The game turned into the touchdown party that most people expected, with both teams unveiling their offensive firepower.
Brenden Rice, son of Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice, proved the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. With former Biletnikoff Award winner, Jordan Addison, skipping the bowl game to prepare for the NFL Draft, Rice led the Trojans in receiving with eight catches for 174 yards and two touchdowns.
Tulane’s star running back Tyjae Spears led the Green Wave with 17 carries for 205 yards and four touchdowns. It was Spears’ FBS-best eighth consecutive game rushing for over 100 yards.
“I cant’ do it all by myself. I have an amazing O-line,” said Spears, who won the Offensive MVP of the game. “We come to work every day. They’re the hardest-working group on the team. They push me every day and we compete with each other. Me and Michael Pratt versus Joey Claybrook and Sincere Haynesworth. We compete every day and see who is going to work harder.”
USC (11-3) have nothing to hang their heads about after completing the best single-season turnaround in school history. Williams tied the Cotton Bowl record with five touchdown passes, and broke the USC school record with 42 touchdowns on the season. However, the Trojans have still yet to win at AT&T Stadium, falling to 0-3 inside the home of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys.
“I’ve rarely at the end of a year felt so conflicted,” said Riley. “On one hand, I’m sick about the way that we finished the season. Particularly, in the fourth quarter of the last two games…Now the flip side of it is, we were in those positions. We’re in this locker room. We’re here at the Cotton Bowl at a New Year’s Six game. 12 months ago, I don’t think many people on the outside believed that was even possible. There’s a ton of great momentum in this program.”
Tulane (12-2), punctuated the biggest single-season turnaround in College Football history, going from 2-10 in 2021, to American Athletic Conference and Cotton Bowl champions in 2022. Led by quarterback Michael Pratt, Tulane broke the school record for total yards in a single season and won 12 games for the first time since 1998.
“This is a huge win for the program,” said Fritz. “Huge win for the university. Huge win for the city. We represent New Orleans. We represent Tulane University. We represent out football program. I think we’ve seen this year what a great football season and competing at a high level can do for an institution. I’m just very proud to be a part of it.”
The Trojans’ offense was one of the best in the country this season, but it was their pitiful defense, prone to giving up big plays and missed tackles that had USC fans worried entering the game. Both turned out to be true.
USC opened the game with a lengthy 17-play, 75-yard scoring drive that soaked up over nine minutes of game time. Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams found Michael Jackson near the sideline and the sophomore scampered into the end zone for the score.
The Trojans marched down the field again on their second possession of the game, with Williams locating a wide-open Terrell Bynum in the end zone for the 14-0 lead.
The drive was kept alive by another dose of Williams’ Heisman magic. On 3rd and 22, the sophomore quarterback spun out of the pocket, and scrambled towards the Trojans sideline before finding Rice near the pylon for a 30-yard gain.
Touchdowns then began to pour out of the game like a piñata at a birthday party, as Tulane responded with an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown of their own.
After a Williams’ interception, the Green Wave tied the game on an 87-yard catch and score that tied the Cotton Bowl record for the longest TD play in the game’s history.
USC shifted the momentum back to their side, scoring two more touchdowns before the half, taking a 28-14 lead into the locker room.
The back-and-forth battle picked up where it left off in the second half, with the Green Wave scoring on their opening drive to cut the lead to 28-21.
Each team took turns scoring until the Trojans’ defense, which led the country in turnover margin (+22) this season, finally got the takeaway that turned the tide.
Mekhi Blackmon forced and recovered the fumble from Spears midway through the fourth quarter, just as Tulane was driving deep into Trojan territory to try and make it a one-score game. USC got three points off the turnover and took a 45-30 lead with 4:30 remaining.
“You’re going to have your ups and downs,” said Blackmon of USC’s defense. “Just wish we played a little better. That’s all you can hope for.”
Tulane answered right back, once again gashing the Trojans’ dreadful defense for a two-play, 63-yard drive that Spears capped off with his fourth touchdown of the day.
Tulane got the ball back after the safety and stunned the Trojans’ fans in attendance by converting multiple fourth downs in the game’s final drive, putting the exclamation point on the improbable comeback with Pratt’s 6-yard touchdown pass to his tight-end Alex Bauman.
The Green Wave’s celebration poured out onto the field after USC’s last gasp lateral play ended.
“We missed tackles in the run game and gave up big plays in the pass game,” said Riley of his team’s defense. “Our tackling hurt us, and against a good running back. That was the story. Their ability to run the football and we didn’t do a good enough job at stopping them obviously. If you don’t tackle good players and a good running back, that’s what happens.”
According to ESPN’s Stats and info, Lincoln Riley has now lost 6 games when holding a lead of at least 14 points since becoming a head coach in 2017, the most in the FBS in that span.
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Source: NBC Los Angeles