It marked WSU’s first regular-season win against a top-five team in 25 years, and it could vault the Cougars into the top-10 when the next set of rankings are released Sunday.
PULLMAN — Six years into the Mike Leach’s tenure at Washington State, the Cougars have their marquee win.
In Pullman on a Friday night game broadcast nationally on ESPN, the 16th-ranked Cougars pulled off the upset of a generation, stunning No. 5 USC 30-27 to snap the Trojans’ 13-0, yearlong winning streak.
It marked WSU’s first regular-season win against a top-five team in 25 years, and its first home win against USC since 2002. Coincidentally, the score-line was the same: the Jason Gesser-led 2002 Cougars also outlasted USC 30-27, though they needed overtime to do it.
Still, that 2002 team ended up in the Rose Bowl. It’s premature to say that the 2017 Cougars are on that same trajectory, but you can’t overstate the magnitude of this win, which could vault the Cougars (5-0) into the top-10 when the next national rankings are released on Sunday.
“You can’t get moments like this,” WSU senior quarterback Luke Falk said. “This is what you’ve worked so hard for in the offseason. We’re going to enjoy this one tonight.”
The win gave Falk his first career victory over USC. It’s memorable when you consider that Falk became WSU’s starting quarterback the last time USC visited Martin Stadium in 2014, after Conner Halliday suffered a broken leg in the first quarter against the Trojans, and Falk replaced him.
WSU lost that day, but three years later, the young redshirt-freshman quarterback has grown up to become this team’s unquestioned leader, and he’s lifted them to new heights.
“He’s one of the best leaders I’ve ever been around,” said safety Hunter Dale. “I would trust him to the day I die. Trust him with my life.”
On Friday night, with almost two dozen pro scouts in attendance, Falk outdueled USC’s Heisman Trophy candidate Sam Darnold, completing 34 of 51 passes for 340 yards and two touchdowns. With his 34 completions, Falk passed former Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion to claim the Pac-12 career record for pass completions, with 1,211.
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Falk’s two touchdown passes also raised his career total to 105, to tie former Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota for second-most in Pac-12 history.
Darnold meanwhile was a pedestrian 15 of 29 for a season-low 164 yards and one interception, and did not throw any touchdowns though he ran for two.
The game was evenly played from start to finish, with six lead changes.
The score was tied 17-all at halftime, with WSU’s touchdowns coming from a 28-yard Tavares Martin Jr. reception, and a 1-yard Jamal Morrow run right before the half.
USC got a 4-yard touchdown run from Darnold in the first quarter, then score on a 86-yard Ronald Jones breakaway in the second quarter.
“This was a tight game the whole time,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “I don’t think the momentum ever changed. I think the momentum changed when we recovered the fumble.”
That would be the fumble forced by redshirt freshman linebacker Jahad Woods, who crept up and leveled Darnold with a strip-sack on second-and-10 from the USC 25, with a little over a minute remaining in the game.
“It was an open hole. I took the opportunity,” said Woods, who was making his second career start. “Early in the first quarter, I actually got the same play. I missed and he scrambled and got a first down that was huge. I made sure I made up for it.”
Derek Moore recovered the loose ball for the Cougars and WSU’s offense ran out the clock to seal the win.
“They’ve played great this year,” Falk said of the WSU defense. “Tonight, we’re not in it without them. They’re one of our most strongest points right now. Earlier in the season, it was us as an offense that was actually holding back the team. These guys were keeping us afloat. Hopefully we’re evening the playing field right now, but these guys have been keeping us afloat since Week 1.”
Despite losing middle linebacker Isaac Dotson in the first quarter to an unspecified leg injury, WSU’s defense harassed Darnold and the Trojans throughout the evening. The Cougars only sacked Darnold twice, but that was in part because the sophomore quarterback was adept at getting out of trouble.
“He’s more elusive than you would think,” said Woods, who led the defense with nine tackles, including seven solo stops and one tackle for loss.
The Cougars’ defense still managed five quarterback hurries and held the Trojans to a season-low 327 offensive yards and 2 of 11 third down conversions.
Down 27-20 with about 6:30 left in the fourth quarter, USC appeared to be fighting a losing battle against the resilient WSU defense.
However, on fourth-and-13 from the Cougar 42, the Trojans made a gutsy call to go for it.
Darnold stood strong in the pocket and released the ball just as he was leveled by a WSU defender, but the pass was true and ended up in the hands of Tyler Vaughns for a 14-yard pickup and a first down.
On the next play, Darnold went back to Vaughns for a 26-yard gain that set up first-and-goal from the 1.
It took only two more plays for Darnold to run into the end zone and tie the score at 27.
The Cougars weren’t done. They got the ball at their own 25 with 5:01 left, and rode runs of 11 and 22 yards from Jamal Morrow to set up Erik Powell for a 32-yard go-ahead field goal that held up as the game-winner.
Powell delivered three huge field goals in the win, converting from 44, 33 and 32 yards and making all three of his extra point attempts.
Morrow was every bit as valuable. The Cougars’ senior running back led the team with 91 yards on six carries and also had five receptions for 47 yards, with one rushing score and one receiving score.
“This was a good game for him,” Leach said. “I thought he really did a good job. He brings a great deal of energy to the sideline and people are just excited to be around Jamal.”
With 1:40 left on the clock, the game fell into the hands of the WSU defense, and it came through with Woods’ big play.
“He’s been a good player around here for a long time. Sort of a quiet guy. He doesn’t say much but he’s always hit a ton,” Leach said of Woods, in his usual understated manner. “He’s always drilled people and I mean in a fashion that surprises you.”