This wasn’t just the win of the season — it was the win of the Mike Leach era.
PULLMAN — They’re real.
For four quarters, the Cougars stood up to the presumed conference kings and sprung up every time they got knocked down. For 60 minutes, Washington State took licks from the team with the 13-game winning streak and counterpunched even harder.
This wasn’t just the win of the season — it was the win of the Mike Leach era. And not just because the Cougs beat a top-five team for the first time in 25 years, but because, in one game, they gave their identity a complete makeover.
“These are once-in-a-lifetime moments,” said WSU quarterback Luke Falk, whose team beat No. 5 USC 30-27 on ESPN. “I’m definitely going to enjoy it with teammates tonight. Couldn’t be more proud.”
Coming into Friday, 16th-ranked Wazzu (5-0) had never had a marquee win since Leach took over the program before the 2012 season. The Cougars lost three straight to Oregon when the Ducks were ranked second, fell to a fifth-ranked Stanford team, an eighth-ranked Stanford team, a 10th-ranked Colorado team and a fifth-ranked Washington team in last year’s Apple Cup.
Moreover, those losses were marked by either last-second choke jobs (see: a missed field goal vs. Stanford in 2015) or total disappearing acts come kickoff (see: last season’s 45-17 home loss to UW).
But Friday? Friday was a showcase for the Cougars’ physical and mental prowess.
We’ll start with the physical. WSU mastered Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold. The preseason Heisman favorite had the worst game of his college career, and it’s not just because he was missing throws.
Perhaps Darnold’s stat line — 15-of-29 passing for 164 yards, zero touchdowns and one interception — suggests he was simply inaccurate. But anyone watching saw that Washington State’s defensive line owned the line of scrimmage on just about every snap.
Darnold’s elusiveness limited Washington State’s sack total to just two, but he was under duress all night long. It was fitting that the game ended when linebacker Jahad Woods strip-sacked Darnold with 1:27 left in the game.
As far as offense goes, Falk and running back Jamal Morrow shined. The former finished with 340 yards on 34-of-51 passing, while the latter had six carries for 91 yards.
Those are just numbers, though. Friday night wasn’t so much about how the Cougars bounced the Trojans — it was about how they bounced back every time trouble appeared.
With Washington State leading 10-7 early in the second quarter, USC running back Ronald Jones broke away for an 86-yard touchdown run. When the Cougs got the ball back, Falk was intercepted on his own 3-yard line.
If the Trojans would have punched that in, suddenly they have a 21-10 lead despite trailing by three one minute earlier. That’s how things unravel. But two stuffs and an incomplete pass later, USC (4-1) was forced to kick a field goal, keeping it a one-score game.
That might have been the most dramatic display of resilience, but there were clutch moments all night. The 12-play, 94-yard touchdown drive that ended with 13 seconds left in the first half was one of them.
Falk’s 11-yard, fourth-quarter completion to Kyle Sweet on fourth-and-two — which led to a TD that gave Wazzu a 27-20 lead — was another. And the go-ahead field-goal drive, which came minutes after USC tied the score after converting on fourth-and-13, was the epitome of clutch.
People aren’t used to that around here. Maybe they will be soon.
When the game came to an official close, fans rushed the field. That act has gotten tired lately, but was appropriate this time.
It had been 15 years since the Cougs last beat USC in Pullman nd 25 since they last beat a top-five team anywhere. There’s a great chance they’ll jump into the top 10 in The Associated Press poll, and are suddenly in the national-championship conversation.
Leach will warn his players not to get too hyped — that the joy they’re feeling could quickly become despair if they’re not focused. But right now they should enjoy it.
That joy is real — and Wazzu is, too.