Putting together any kind of top-whatever list always leaves the writer open to a lot of pot shots and criticism -- I've participated in blogpolls during basketball season, so I know better than anyone that it's often a lot more difficult than it looks -- but they also are meant to generate conversation, so I'll go ahead and jump into the fray on a list that I think has one egregious omission.
The always quality and entertaining Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News has been putting together his "best of the decade" series, and his most recent installment includes the best Pac-10 games of the decade. His criteria?
I tried to pick games with thrills, controversy or significance — or, even better, all three.
You'll have to visit his site to see the list he came up with, but as a Coug fan, there seems to be one, notably ENORMOUS omission.
You want thrills? How about a game that featured ...
Drama: Two fourth-quarter comebacks -- one by each team -- followed by a game-winning field goal in OT.
Big games from big players: The top two quarterbacks in the conference each throwing for over 300 yards and combining for five touchdowns. One of the quarterbacks would eventually win the Heisman Trophy, while the other would finished seventh. And then there was the defensive tackle who would record two sacks and two other tackles for loss on his way to winning the Outland Trophy as the nation's best defensive lineman.
Memorable plays: Take your pick -- an end zone interception from one team to kill a drive; a fourth-down stand by the other team on their own 1-yard line to stop another; a 75-yard touchdown run from one team; a 55-yard touchdown pass from the other. And that's just for starters.
You want significance? How about a game that ...
- Featured two BCS bowl teams.
- Would ultimately decide the winner of the conference that year.
- Would also ultimately send a program that many thought would never get to the Rose Bowl to its second such game in six seasons.
- Featured a coach for the the winning team who, after taking his program to unseen heights, would use the eventual conference championship as a springboard to a bigger job, leaving the program in the hands of a trusted assistant who would eventually take the program to unseen depths just five years later.
- Would be the last time the loser didn't win the conference for the ensuing six years.
You like that? Then you've got to include that epic overtime WSU 30-27 win over USC in 2002 -- the game that would ultimately prove to be the difference in sending the Cougs to the 2003 Rose Bowl. There wasn't a lot of controversy in the game (that I remember), but if Wilner wanted thrills and significance, this game seems like a major oversight on his part.
If you're unfamiliar with the game or just want to relive it again, you can read my recap after the jump. But suffice to say, it was just an amazing game -- one that most of the country didn't see, thanks to ABC's reginonal broadcast. (Thanks again, Tom Hansen!) WSU and USC racked up nearly 1,000 yards of offense between them, yet it never felt like an old-fashioned shootout as each team's defense came up with more than enough big plays to keep the score low.
The two best quarterbacks in the conference that year put on an absolute show, as Carson Palmer finished with 381 yards, three total touchdowns and one interception, and Jason Gesser finished with 315 yards, two passing touchdowns and one interception. As I mentioned earlier, Palmer would go on to win the Heisman; Gesser would finish seventh. Defensively, Rien Long -- WSU's standout tackle -- built what would eventually become an Outland Trophy-winning season on the foundation of this game with two sacks and two other tackles for loss, most of them as the game was coming to a close.
Additionally, it's hard to understate the game's significance. As a result of the victory, the Cougs would hold the tiebreaker over the Trojans at the end of the season that sent them to the Rose Bowl (something they needed after blowing the Apple Cup to a bad, bad UW team.) A lot of people forget that this was the last time USC didn't win the Pac-10, either outright or via tiebreaker. If you asked 100 Pac-10 fans who was the last team other than USC to win the conference, you'd probably get a lot of "Cal?" and "Oregon?" -- few probably remember it's WSU.
The 2002 season, on the strength of that win, proved that WSU wasn't just lucky in getting to the Rose Bowl in 1997.
The game also set into motion a series of events that would change the course of not just the WSU program, but also another program. WSU coach Mike Price would accept the job at Alabama before the 2003 Rose Bowl, awkwardly coach the game, head to Tuscaloosa, then get fired mere months after getting hired after reports alleging a tawdry night out on the town surfaced in media outlets.
Meanwhile, the job of maintining the WSU program would fall to Price's longtime assistant Bill Doba -- who, eventually, would oversee a collapse of the program so catastrophic that five seasons after posting three consecutive 10-win campaigns the team would need multiple missed field goals by their opponent, a desperation pass and two clutch field goals in the Apple Cup to avoid a winless season against FBS competition. Alabama didn't really recover until last season.
So where would I rank this game on Wilner's list?
It's hard to argue with his top four, and while No. 5 is an excellent choice as well, that's where I think you can start making a case for the WSU/USC game:
Texas 41, USC 38. The Rose Bowl, Jan. 4, 2006. (This one needs no explanation.)
- USC 43, Notre Dame 31. Notre Dame Stadium, Oct. 15, 2005. (A good game made great by star power.)
- Stanford 49, Oregon 42. Autzen Stadium, Oct. 20, 2001. (Huge, ridiculously improbable comeback cost Oregon a shot at the national championship.)
- USC 23, Cal 17. L.A. Coliseum, Oct. 9, 2004. (Probably the most significant Pac-10 game of the decade.)
Stanford 24, USC 23. L.A. Coliseum, Oct. 6, 2007. (An upset of monumental proportions that cost USC the chance to play in the national championship.)
But even if you think WSU/USC can't trump that Stanford upset, there's no way it should be ranked any lower than No. 6. The current No. 6?
Oregon 34, Oklahoma 33. Autzen Stadium, Sept. 16, 2006: A game in September notable mostly for officials blowing a call? One that involved an Oregon team that would lose five games, and an Oklahoma team that would be most famous for losing to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl? No way.
Lest we think that Wilner is just overvaluing No. 6, here's No. 7:
Oregon State 33, USC 31. Reser Stadium, Oct. 28, 2006: Yes, it ended USC's 27-game winning streak in the conference, and yes, it was entertaining. But there's pretty much no way you can argue it as a better game than the WSU/USC tilt of 2002, at least by Wilner's criteria.
As a Coug, I'd have to slot the 2002 WSU/USC game at No. 5. But even the most objective fan would have to place it no lower than sixth.
Click on the jump after the poll to relive the game.
The No. 18 Cougars were hosting an unranked USC program on the rise under second-year head coach Pete Carroll. WSU was coming off a 10-win season that finished with a Sun Bowl victory, while the Trojans were fighting to get back to the upper class of the Pac-10 after years of mediocrity under Paul Hackett. USC was 6-6 in Carroll's first season, and a win over one of the conference favorites would go a long way toward establishing the Trojans once again.
The game started off with numerous offensive fireworks, as USC marched for a touchdown after the opening kick. The Cougs would answer with a Drew Dunning field goal, stop the Trojans on the next drive, then take the lead as a 7-play, 74-yard drive was capped by a 3-yard pass from Jason Gesser to Mike Bush. WSU 10, USC 7.
The game then evolved into a defensive struggle. USC and WSU traded punts, and just when it looked like the Trojans had something going, driving down the Cougs' 9-yard-line, Jason David intercepted Carson Palmer in the end zone to kill the ... wait! David fumbled! Recoverd by Eric Coleman -- crisis averted.
Buoyed by the turnover, the Cougs proceeded to slice through the Trojans vaunted defense, which had come into the game giving up just 204 yards per game in its first four contests. Gesser to Devard Darling for 15 yards. Jerome Riley rush for 19 yards. Gesser to Jermaine Green for 17 yards. Gesser to Riley for 19 more. In their first four plays of the drive, the Cougs had moved from their own 20 to the USC 10. And when Gesser connected with Collin Henderson heading toward the end zone on the next play, a touchdown seemed imminent. But a gang tackle at the 1-yard-line kept him out of the end zone. Still, the Cougs were poised to add to their lead.
Their manhood sufficiently challenged, Carroll's boys woke up. Second-and-goal from the 1: Green rush, no gain. Third-and-goal from the 1: Gesser, under pressure, thows an incomplete pass. Fourth-and-goal from the 1: Quarterback sneak ... stuffed. Turnover. The score remains 10-7, as it would until the end of the half thanks to a missed field goal by USC's Ryan Killeen that hit the upright.
The fun was just beginning.
Devard Darling fielded the opening kickoff of the third quarter, but fumbled the ball to USC on the Cougs' 24 yard line. Four plays later, the Trojans were in the end zone when Palmer connected with Malefou MacKenzie for a 15-yard touchdown. Just two minutes into the half, the Trojans had taken a 17-14 lead. It would be short lived.
Up until that point, the Cougs had done the majority of their damage through the air. But that all changed when Jermaine Green exploded for a 75-yard touchdown run to put the Cougs up 21-17. In a game that had been featuring stout defense, there had been two touchdowns in the first 2:30 of the third quarter.
USC would try to get something going on the next drive, but WSU defensive end Isaac Brown would have nothing of it, with two quarterback hurries and a sack that effectively ended the drive. The teams once again traded punts on their next two drives before the Cougs looked poised to take control of the game, driving from their own 10 to USC's 10, largely on the strength of the running game. But after a pair of incomplete passes sandwiched around a Gesser scramble, the Cougs stalled once again. Set to at least get three points on a 27-yard field goal, Dunning ... missed. Wide right.
One play into the fourth quarter, WSU continued to cling to a 17-14 lead.
Another stalled drive by USC -- to this point, they'd really only had two extended drives on the day -- the Cougs finally put some much-needed space between themselves and the Trojans. Fueled by a critical 3rd-and-12 conversion from their own 26 and a dumb personal foul penalty by the Trojans, the Cougs made USC pay when Gesser found Troy Bienneman for a 36-yard gain down to the USC 1. It appeared that it might be deja vu when the Cougs' were stuffed on first-and-goal and Gesser misfired on second-and-goal, but WSU broke through when Gesser found Mike Bush for a 2-yard TD. Finally, with 10 minutes to go in the game, the Cougs had some breathing room. WSU 24, USC 14.
But Carson Palmer was about to show why he would win the Heisman Trophy at the end of the year, going 3-for-4 for 47 yards on the next drive, which he would cap with a 3-yard rush for a touchdown -- WSU 24, USC 21. But he wasn't done there.
After WSU's next drive stalled out at midfield, Palmer came out firing again, connecting with Keary Colbert for 30 yards. But a holding penalty brought the ball back. No matter -- after an incomplete pass on first-and-20, Palmer connected with MacKenzie for eight yards to bring up third-and-12. That's when the Trojans bottled a little lightning of their own -- Palmer hit Mike Williams for a 55 yard touchdown. But Killeen would miss the extra point to leave the Cougs within a field goal with 4:10 to go. It would prove to be big.
On the ensuing drive, the Cougs moved down to USC's 21 thanks to a classic Gesser release-as-he's-hit 53-yard pass to Sammie Moore. But the Trojans stiffened up once again, stuffing John Tippens for a two-yard loss, forcing an incompletion on second down, and limiting Gesser to just a five-yard completion to Henderson on third down. Faced with a 35-yard field goal that would either potentially force overtime or likely hand the win to USC, Dunning didn't flinch. He drilled it to tie the game at 27 with just 1:50 to go.
USC had designs on moving into field goal range, but the Cougs would have nothing of it. On his first drop back, Palmer was sacked by Rien Long, who was about to singlehandedly take over the game. With WSU possessing just one timeout, Carroll decided to play conservative -- two rushes later, the clock had expired and the game was heading to overtime.
WSU won the toss, and naturally elected to play defense. Sultan McCullough ran for 3 yards on first down, but Long decided he'd had enough: He sacked Palmer for a loss of seven on second down, then dropped Justin Fargas for a loss of five on third down, leaving USC with nothing more than a hope for a long field goal to give them the lead on the first possession of OT. But Killeen just couldn't wake up from his nightmare, as the 52-yarder sailed wide right. The door was open for the Cougs.
Price didn't even try to hide his strategy at this point, as there would be no opportunity to you-know-what it by throwing the ball. First-and-10: Tippens rush for three yards. Second-and-seven: Tippens rush for four yards. Third-and-three: Send out the kicker.
Lined up for a 35-yarder from the middle of the field, Dunning, with his flair for the dramatic, wouldn't disappoint: He drilled it. Moments later, he was sliding on his knees at the 50-yard-line, being mobbed by his teammates as the dejected Trojans headed back to L.A.