I probably wasn't alone in wondering if this was going to be another game that came with all the hype in the world, only to end up a letdown. We've seen it plenty of times before — the Cougs get their hopes up, get all hyped up and ... faceplant. You'd probably be lying if you said you didn't have that in the back of your head as the countdown to kickoff ticked down on Friday night in Pullman. A packed house. A top-5 USC team. Two undefeated teams in the top-25. All the ingredients were there for a great story. And all the ingredients were there for frustration, too.
From the opening whistle, though, it was clear Washington State not only belonged on the field with USC, but were the better team. The Cougs looked just as fast as the highly-touted Trojans, more physical than a USC team that makes its living knocking around opponents, and better coached, better schemed, better everything'd.
What you saw on Friday night in Pullman, in front of nearly 34,000 screaming fans, was Washington State football in 2017. The Cougars have been building to this, taking their lumps and figuring out what they are, for years. This was all the pieces coming together, falling into place like everyone hoped they would. It looked familiar, even comfortable, to those that have been watching along.
It goes something like this. The Air Raid offense picks and probes, looking for tendencies and weakness in an opponent's defense. It usually starts a bit slow as Mike Leach and Luke Falk try different concepts to see how a defense reacts. They show different looks, different route combinations, and different actions, all with the intent of finding a rhythm and creating space and confusion in the defensive backfield.
As that's happening, the defense — built for speed and not necessarily for power — is expected to at least hold serve, to keep things under control while the offense finds its gear, and to try and get the ball back as fast as possible. After USC put together a quick drive, likely on script, that ended in a touchdown to open the game, the Washington State defense settled in and got after it. It gave the offense time to figure things out, and it did in four quick plays — the first of which was a 61-yard bomb to Renard Bell. It was a play that left the USC defensive backfield confused, with Bell streaking up the seam wide open, and everyone in the stadium and watching at home jumping up, realizing what was happening.
Throughout the game and despite the hype, the Cougars stayed calm, hung in, and never let the momentum swings — of which there were plenty in the first half — take a toll. It never looked like things were out of control. And nowhere was that more evident than backed up against their own end zone following a Luke Falk interception.
- Ronald Jones get walloped in the backfield at the two.
- A back-shoulder fade is nearly picked off in the end zone.
- A different running back, Stephen Carr, is walloped in the backfield
- Field goal
What could've been a massive swing, putting Washington State down two scores and potentially taking the air out of the stadium, instead turned into a positive. That undersized but fast defense, faced with the task of stopping USC from the three, said no more. And it set the tone for everything else.
The coaching here shouldn't be understated. On a short week, Mike Leach took the USC defense and put it on a string.
An example: In the second quarter, the Cougars ran a two-back shovel action. It wasn't actually designed as a shovel (the play went elsewhere) but they were testing to see the reaction. If you were watching closely, you could see it was there — I made a note that said "they have shovel out of two back for a big gain" at the time. Fast forward to the fourth quarter with the game tied and the Cougars driving. The USC defense was pinning back and rushing Falk, but also looked a bit worn down. For the first and only time all game, Leach called shovel out of the two-back look. Touchdown. Nobody touched Jamal Morrow. It was a diabolical play call.
If not for drops, this could've been a two or three score game. The scheme was working, the system was working, and Washington State had USC on its heels for most of the game. This was the Air Raid at its best — receivers running open in space as defenders had to make choices. Make the wrong one and it's lights out.
And that undersized defense? The one that plays mostly under 300 pounds up front? The one that's been rotating cornerbacks in and out trying to find the right combination? The one that lost its senior leader in Peyton Pelluer, then saw Isaac Dotson go down with an ankle injury on Friday night?
Sure, they confused USC by changing gaps and bringing blitzes from all angles. They also knocked the Trojans on their ass. It was a lot of scheme*, but Washington State was every bit as physical as USC. The Cougars came for a fight, and left a whole lot of USC players in their wake. And with the game on the line, Grinch brought pressure one more time, fanning backers out to cover the outlets and turning Jahad Woods loose right up the gut. He was untouched, and one last time Darnold was on his back, ball trickling out right to a Washington State defender to end the game.
*This is where I note that Alex Grinch has really settled in. He can coach, and get the most out of his players. He can also scheme one hell of a defense. Yes, USC was banged up on the offensive line. Sam Darnold also spent much of the night confused by the looks, seeing ghosts, and scrambling to save his life.
This wasn't a lucky game. It wasn't a product of the Cougars getting more amped up and playing above their heads. It wasn't smoke and mirrors, tricks, or sneaking by a top-5 USC team. It was just plain ol' Cougar football.
We all wondered how good the Cougars were going into Friday night, and figured USC would be a good way to find out. From start to finish, Washington State took it to the Trojans, going right after them and dictating the game. There was no letdown, no false hopes, and, for USC, no way to escape.