BERKELEY, Calif. (AP)—Chauncey Washington’s first step was a doozy. The USC tailback slipped, tripped and tumbled to the waterlogged turf without being touched the first time he got the ball at California.
Between an insistent rain and the Golden Bears’ sturdy defense, Washington could have been in for a long day. It turned into the greatest night of his college career, and the long-struggling senior kept his Trojans in the Rose Bowl hunt.
Washington ran for a career-high 220 yards and a touchdown, and No. 12 USC beat No. 24 Cal 24-17 on Saturday night in a matchup that was much more tantalizing before both schools blew their national title hopes last month.
John David Booty passed for 129 yards and a score for the Trojans (8-2, 5-2 Pac-10), who stayed in the conference and BCS races by faring slightly better in the steady precipitation that drenched Strawberry Canyon all night, causing both teams to flounder with footing, execution and tackling.
“We changed our game plan a lot,” Washington said. “This morning, when we had our walkthrough, they said it was going to rain, so we were going to pound the ball tonight.”
Washington, who finished with 101 more yards rushing than his previous career high, and Booty led a tiebreaking 96-yard scoring drive through the rain and mist in the fourth quarter, capped by Stafon Johnson’s 3-yard TD run with 7:38 left.
“We were in the huddle, and we told each other we’ve got to finish,” Washington said. “That’s our motto. Fourth quarter, we’ve got to finish. I was just telling everybody this is gut time, gut check.”
Washington’s star-crossed career has included academic problems, ankle injuries and only one solid season. He recovered from his original slip to rush for 108 yards in the first half, then made a handful of big runs in the second half before Johnson finished off the decisive TD drive.
“We’ve been wanting Chauncey to be the energy of the offense,” USC coach Pete Carroll said. “The last couple weeks, he’s been feeling it. You could just tell he was on fire, and there was no way we should take the ball out of his hands.
“So we just rode him, and he was up for the task from start to finish. He’s been building to this kind of effort.”
Nate Longshore, Cal’s mistake-prone quarterback, fumbled a center exchange and threw an interception in the final minutes, allowing USC to hang on for its fourth straight win over Cal (6-4, 3-4) and its 22nd consecutive November victory under Carroll.
Justin Forsett rushed for a season-high 164 yards and a touchdown in the final home game for the Bears, who have lost four of five since being the nation’s No. 2 team in early October.
“The rain affects the game, but it’s not an excuse,” Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. “The ball is slippery. You can’t get a good grip. When it rains the whole game, it has an effect on the game.”
The Golden Bears tied it in the final minute of the third quarter when Lavelle Hawkins leaped and stretched to catch a 20-yard TD pass from Longshore, who went 13-of-20 for 199 yards and two interceptions.
Cal mounted a promising drive from its 8 in the final minutes, with Forsett scampering deep into USC territory on a 34-yard screen pass with 3 minutes left. But Longshore underthrew his next receiver, and cornerback Terrell Thomas leaped to intercept the pass.
“It definitely stings to know we were close,” said Cal safety Thomas DeCoud, who made 12 tackles and forced a fumble. “It was a little slippery, but you have to wrap up and tackle. You’ve got to play in any condition, rain, sleet or snow.”
After losing two of four games in October to fall out of the national title chase, USC is still unbeaten in November during Carroll’s seven seasons.
Though Oregon must collapse for the Trojans to get their sixth straight Pac-10 title, USC’s hopes to extend its run of five straight BCS bowl games and 11-win seasons are still alive. USC also is in the running for a Rose Bowl berth if the Ducks reach the BCS title game, with the Trojans’ trip to Arizona State on Thanksgiving looming as the decisive day.
The Bears dressed up for the rivalry game, donning throwback uniforms in honor of Cal’s powerful 1975 team led by quarterback Joe Roth, who died of cancer three months after his final game. The royal-blue jerseys with bright-yellow pants and block-C helmets sparked cries of joy in the alumni section when the Bears first stormed out of the tunnel, but Longshore and his teammates couldn’t match that 1975 team’s powerful offense.
The rain dampened spirits for the rivalry game, with thousands of fans hiding in the stadium walkways or wrapping up in ponchos. USC graduate Will Ferrell, who usually watches games on the field, and “Anchorman” director Adam McKay huddled under an awning in Memorial Stadium’s open-air press box for the first half.
“It was nonstop. It never stopped,” Booty said. “I thought it’d let up at times, but it was the whole time.”