In 2004, Bill Doba thought he could catch USC off guard by starting the game with an onside kick.
Boy, he was wrong.
Loren Langley's onside kick attempt failed miserably and Reggie Bush scored on the first drive for the Trojans. The Cougs then fumbled away the ensuing USC kickoff, and before the Cougs had even touched the ball they were down 14-0. Before the first quarter was even half over they were down 21-0.
The rest of the game was a disaster; Kyle Basler was the leading rusher (17 yards), many fans left at halftime of a rainy, sold-out game, and the Cougs didn't score until the game was 42-0. It would have been more embarrassing if Matt Cassel hadn't played and handed the Cougars a TD on an interception return. The final score was Trojans 42, Cougars 12.
That is not how you get an upset.
Oregon State proved something on Thursday (and in 2006) that I've believed for a while now. They didn't beat USC by trick plays, gimmicks, or an unorthodox game plan. Nope, they beat USC by (mainly) pounding the ball up the middle into one of the strongest defenses in the nation. They played a team with better talent straight up and won. Said Pete Carroll:
"They didn't hide what they were doing, they just did it. We couldn't stop it. We couldn't tackle."
The problem with going all Boise State on a superior team is that you're sending the message to the team that they aren't good enough to beat that team straight up. Often, that's true. But Oregon State proved that if you minimize turnovers and play your game instead of your opponents', you're more likely to pull off the big win. And with two straight wins in Corvallis, the Beavers are learning how to be giant killers (even if they can't beat Stanford, which is a different story for a different day).
Back to Doba. Here are the USC/WSU scores from his tenure:
Pretty consistent beatings, right? The one anomaly, the 28-22 loss in Pullman (the game that featured Alex Brink's now infamous "Frail Mary", a final pass from midfield that didn't even reach the end zone), was the one game where the Cougars didn't gamble too much (0 fourth down conversion attempts) and kept the ball away from USC (1 WSU turnover contrasted with 2 Trojan turnovers). Later that year USC would lose on the road to the Beavs, and the only reason they escaped Pullman was the ability to isolate Steve Smith against our brutally mismatched linebackers.
It took Doba 3 and 1/2 years to realize how to properly game plan for a top five opponent. Although, in his defense, he didn't have personnel during most of his years that could compete with high-ranked teams. Of course, a large part of that was under his control with recruiting. And by his fifth year we were back to getting stomped by the men of Troy, and teams like them. We shouldn't have to wait as long for Wulff to figure it out.
It's important for Wulff to realize this theory as we go up against the Ducks today, and against USC in a few weeks. You can beat teams with superior talent, without resorting to trick plays and onside kicks. Yes, even with the team we have now we are capable of pulling an upset or two before the season is over. Chris Ivory has shown the same difficult-to-tackle rushing ability that Jacquizz Rodgers showed on Thursday. Lobbestael, we know now, has the ability to read defenses and make some good throws. Our defense, hopefully, is better than how they've played in the first three games.
The moral of the story: play them straight up. It's your best chance of winning, and even if you fail, you may end up showing your team that they can at least be competitive with a BCS-caliber team.
Fresno State (-7) 28, UCLA 17
California (-26.5) 35, Colorado State 14
Oregon (-21.5) 41, Washington State 13
Washington (-3) 28, Stanford 21
Season Record: 21-9 (4-1 last week)
Against the Spread: 14-14 (3-1)