A pause, please, in all the jokes about Cougars football. Applause, please.
Kings for the night in college football, unbeaten Washington State (5-0) toppled fifth-ranked USC (4-1) 30-27 Friday night in front of a delirious, sold-out (33,773) Martin Stadium crowd. The triumph likely ushered in a three-day bender the likes of which has not been seen since the final weekend of the 19-year-old minimum drinking age next door in Idaho.
The 16th-ranked Cougars hadn’t beaten the Trojans in Pullman since 2002, when a dark-haired kid named Pete Carroll was in his second year coaching at USC. WSU had lost 15 in a row at home to top-25 opponents, the longest such drought among Power Five conference schools. And they were were 3½-point underdogs to the tradition-rich program from Los Angeles.
But a resolute defense led by Hercules Mata’afa pestered one-time Heisman Trophy candidate QB Sam Darnold into haste and errors, while QB Luke Falk survived five sacks and five dropped passes to throw for 340 yards to lead the Cougars to 10 points on their final two possessions.
As fans poured onto the field, coach Mike Leach, who had his often-controversial tenure validated in his sixth season in the Palouse, was the only stoic in the house as he stared into ESPN’s national camera after one of the greatest wins in Washington State history.
“I’m not surprised or stunned,” he said. “I’m extremely pleased for these guys.”
The surprised/stunned folks were the Trojans, who cringed watching Darnold deliver the poorest production of his 15-game career, with just 164 yards on 15 of 29 passing. The final indignity came on the Trojans’ final offensive play.
On second down with 1:20 play and needing about 50 yards for a shot at a game-tying field goal, Darnold was strip-sacked by blitzing safety Jahad Woods. WSU recovered and ran out the clock to spare generations of Cougars fans the heartbreak of a late giveaway.
It must be noted that the Trojans lost to injury during the game two starting offensive linemen, RT Chuma Edoga and RG Viane Talamaivao. Already missing from an earlier injury was starting LT Toa Lobendahn.
But there was precious little eye moisture in the Palouse for Trojans’ shorthandness, especially with 40 players on the WSU roster from California, many of them Trojan wannabes in high school.
Jamal Morrow was one of them. He led the Cougars with 91 yards on six carries, plus another 47 yards on five receptions. That included the back-breaker play of the game, a third-down shovel pass from Falk with 10:14 left that Morrow turned into a 23-yard touchdown and a 27-20 lead.
Darnold had his best moments on the ensuing possession, completing five of six passes, including a remarkable throw on fourth-and-13 for a first down. He ran in an option keeper from two yards to tie the game at 27 with 5:13 left.
Falk took over from there. Despite a battering from USC’s premier pass rushers, Falk coaxed 60 yards in eight plays to set up Erik Powell’s decisive 32-yard field goal with 1:40 left.
WSU ran 81 plays to 58 for USC, and out-gained the Trojans 462-327. USC converted only two of 11 third downs. The Cougars mixed the Air Raid short pass game with a well-timed ground game to bewilder the Trojans regularly, making a substantial claim that they were legitimately the better team.
Up until now, the Cougars season benefited from four home games, all against decidedly weaker outfits. Friday’s game made for the first time in WSU football history a season began with five consecutive home games.
But history was made far more substantially on the scoreboard against the team with the conference’s richest football tradition.
Falk’s two TD passes gave him 105 for his career, tying with Oregon’s Marcus Mariota for second-most in Pac-12 history behind USC’s Matt Barkley . . . his 34 completions gave him 1,211, breaking the Pac-12 career record by Oregon State’s Sean Mannion . . .His 12,611 passing yards are third in conference history . . . Career win No. 23 leaves him one short of Jason Gesser’s school record . . . WSU is 5-0 for the first time since starting the 2001 season 7-0 . . . WSU beat a top-five-ranked team for the first time since beating No. 5 Texas in the 2003 Holiday Bowl. In the regular season, it was the first win over a top-five team since beating No. 5 Washington in 1992 in the famous Snow Bowl game behind QB Drew Bledsoe.