ARLINGTON, TX – USC and Tulane have similar stories of turning their programs around. USC finished 2021 4-8, while Tulane’s season went 2-10. At the end of the day, Monday’s Cotton Bowl featured two teams with programs heading in the right direction, which is critical considering a College Football expansion in the future. “We’ve learned a lot of things [and] we’ve grown in a lot of ways, and that’s why we’re at this game,” USC Head coach Lincoln Riley said. “There’s still so much to go to be in that position where we got on a conference championship game, or you win a big bowl game like this or a win a semifinal or win a national championship game.”
“I know we all believe 2-10 that wasn’t our best foot forward. We all knew we were a better team than we showed. Coach came in and installed a different mindset in the team,” Linebacker Dorian Williams said. It was the first meeting between these schools since 1946, and Monday’s Cotton Bowl felt like it took 77 years off the crowd in the stands. It was about two teams proving to themselves, their fan bases, the country, and the college football world that they belong in the expanded playoffs, and it turned out to be a thriller.
USC was methodical on their opening possession. The Trojans went 3 for 4 on third down conversions, converted a fourth down, took nine minutes off the clock on a seventeen-play, and seventy-five-yard opening touchdown capped off with Caleb Williams’ three-yard touchdown pass to Michael Jackson III. After Tulane punted while picking up one first down, the Trojans went back to work offensively. Their next scoring drive went ninety-five yards on twelve plays finishing with Williams’ throw to Terrell Bynum for three yards. Seventeen and a half minutes into Monday’s game, USC outgained Tulane 185-21, converting seven of their eight third-down conversions. The lone third down conversion USC didn’t convert resulted in a fourth down conversion to extend their opening drive. “It was tough in the first half,” Williams said. “Seeing [Caleb Williams] on film and playing against it is two different things.”
Tulane shifted some momentum back to their side after the second USC touchdown. It was a forty-yard scramble for Tulane quarterback Michael Pratt that set up Tulane into scoring position. Finally, the Green Wave scored on Tyjae Spears’ three-yard touchdown run. He threw down a defender to pick up fourteen on his last touch. USC threatened back into Tulane territory, but Williams threw an interception straight to Jarius Monroe inside the Green Wave ten-yard line, nullifying a USC chance to keep the momentum going. On the second play after the turnover, Pratt threw a deep shot to Jha’Quan Jackson for an eighty-seven-yard touchdown, tying a Cotton Bowl record for the longest TD pass (1960 Syracuse’s Gerhard Schwedes threw an eighty-seven-yarder to Ernie Davis against Texas). Tulane suddenly evened the game up at fourteen with five minutes remaining in the half.
USC took over the final minutes of the first half. On back-to-back carries, Raleek Brown picked up fifty-three yards darting past the Tulane secondary to put the Trojans back in front. Then, Caleb Williams’ arm produced fifty-nine yards on three completions to set USC up inside the Tulane ten. With twenty seconds left, USC finished the half with Brenden Rice’s four-yard touchdown completion from Williams, putting the Trojans up 28-14 at halftime. [USC quote]
The third quarter was a track meet for both sides. USC used Caleb Williams and the aerial attack, while Tulane used the ground game, equating to 326 total yards between the two teams in the third frame. The quarter started with Spears with four carries and sixty yards, finishing with a seven-yard score to put Tulane back to within seven. USC moved the football and converted another fourth down, but the drive stalled at the Tulane thirty-five as Denis Lynch attempted a fifty-two-yard field goal (which would have been a season-long).
However, the kick fell short, and Tulane gained excellent field position where their drive stalled at the USC twenty-five. Valentino Ambrosio connected on a forty-two-yard field goal to cut the Trojans’ lead to 28-24. USC turned and connected to Brenden Rice twice (one for seventy-four yards) and the second completion for nineteen yards. The call initially was short of the goal line, but Rice navigated his feet past the pylon, where replay called it a touchdown, extending USC’s lead to 35-24. Tyjae Spears took over the next drive on two rushes for sixty-five yards, with the three-yard carry for the touchdown. Tulane couldn’t convert the two-point conversion, and the deficit for the Green Wave cut to 35-30. [
After the score, Tulane attempted an onside kick which didn’t pan out for the Green Wave, giving USC plus field position, and took advantage with another quality drive (three plus minutes). Williams threw a four-yard touchdown pass to Kyron Hudson to extend the Trojans’ lead back to double digits and a twelve-point fourth-quarter advantage (42-30). After Tyjae Spears fumbled, USC marched for a six-minute drive ending in Denis Lynch’s 43-yard field goal, capping the largest lead of the game for USC at 45-30. “It was going to be like whatever it took, whatever it took, whatever. However, it looks like we are going to get it done. We never lost faith. I’ve been telling guys the whole time we are going to win this game,” running back Tyjae Spears said after the game when Tulane fell down by fifteen in the fourth.”
Tulane needed to move quickly, and they did. On the following Green Wave drive, it took two plays when Pratt found Deuce Watts for fifty-nine yards, and Spears ran it in from four yards to bring the game back to a one-possession contest (45-37). However, the wheels fell off for USC after that. Mario Williams fumbled the football on the ensuing kickoff, and the ball rolled out of bounds at the Trojans’ one-yard line. Two plays later, the Tulane defense penetrated and tackled Austin Jones in the end zone for a safety, cutting the deficit to six. More importantly, they got the football back immediately with only one timeout.
On the last possession for Tulane, they converted two fourth downs and got a gift drop in bounds by tight end Alex Bauman where if he was tackled, the Green Wave might have one play, at best, to snap. “It was a blessing in disguise,” Bauman smiled when he talked about the dropped pass inbounds. “I’m trying to catch the ball, every ball is thrown at me, but it happened that way.” On the next play, Pratt found Bauman in the end zone, originally ruled incomplete. However, replay overturned the call, and it was a game-winning touchdown, providing Tulane with their only lead of the game, and the only lead that mattered. “I’m trying to soak it in right now. It’s an outstanding job. “We do a drill called fastball where we go as fast as we can. Have a lot of music on and had a lot of chaos, and the guys executed each play and the way they needed to execute,” Tulane head coach Willie Fritz said.
Tulane’s Tyjay Spears ran for 205 yards and four touchdowns on Monday, putting Tulane over 300 rushing yards against USC’s 62nd-ranked rush defense in college football. Michael Pratt threw eight completions but averaged 29 yards per pass completion (234 yards).
For USC, Heisman winner Caleb Williams set a Cotton Bowl record for five touchdown passes and threw for 462 yards and Brenden Rice caught six passes for 174 yards where his previous season high was 72 yards on October 1st against Arizona State. “Losses like this are tough to digest,” USC Head Coach Lincoln Riley said. “I thought our guys laid it on the line and played hard, prepared hard, and we put ourselves in phenomenal position to get it done. But all three sides right there at the end contributed to [the loss]. Now that the season is over, I’ve rarely, at the end of the year, felt so conflicted.” “It’s a huge win for the program, the university, and the city. We represent New Orleans. We represent Tulane University, [and] represent our football program.”