On a night when both teams struggled to move the ball, Washington State’s defense drew rave reviews from everyone. Well, everyone but the thousands of USC fans who booed the Trojans’ stagnant offense throughout the game, then booed coach Lane Kiffin as he left the field after chanting “Fire Kiffin!” in the closing minutes.
“The defense won the game for us,” offensive tackle Gunnar Eklund said. “They set the tone, and when the offense needed it, we drove down the field and (Andrew) Furney kicked a field goal to win it.”
Furney’s 41-yard field goal with 3 minutes, 15 seconds left accounted for the only scoring in the second half. A minute later, Damante Horton recorded his second interception of the game – the first one resulting in a 70-yard touchdown return with 27 seconds to go in the first half – and WSU quarterback Connor Halliday took a knee the rest of the way to run out the clock.
Washington State (1-1) had lost 19 consecutive games to Top 25 AP poll teams, dating back to a 34-23 win over Oregon in 2006 in Pullman. The Cougars had lost eight in a row to USC (1-1) and 10 straight Pac-12 games away from Pullman, including two home games in Seattle.
None of it mattered Saturday.
Leach’s biggest win at WSU did not come easy, but that’s part of the reason it felt so good for long-suffering Cougars fans.
“It starts right now for Washington State University,” Eklund said.
“It’s a stepping stone,” Horton agreed.
The Cougars mustered just 222 total yards, including 7 on 22 carries. But the Trojans had only 193 total yards, and a mere 54 in the air.
“The biggest thing is, it’s such a team win,” quarterback Connor Halliday said. “Last week against Auburn, we played real well, but it was in spurts. The offense would play well, then the defense would give up a big play. I’d throw a pick, then the defense would get a stop. It was never ‘together.’
“For the defense to play the way they did tonight was absolutely amazing.”
Halliday accounted for all three WSU turnovers for the second straight game, as he threw two interceptions and lost a fumble, all in the first half. Halliday did set up Furney’s field goal, completing a screen pass that Dominique Williams turned into a 50-yard gain thanks to some of his best shake-and-best moves after nearly being stopped for a short gain.
“I just want to congratulate the other 10 guys on offense,” Halliday said. “If this was a couple years ago, we would have went in the tank mentally with not being able to move the ball. We were able to stay in it in the second half mentally, which was huge.”
Also huge, obviously, was Furney’s kick. It was the second game-winning field goal in the past three games for Furney, who beat Washington in double overtime last November.
Furney said his latest game winner “feels better than the Apple Cup right now, because it’s most recent. I was thinking, ‘It’s just a normal kick. It’s something you do every day in practice.’”
Leach said Washington State’s offensive line “played very courageously” and “very hard.” Still, Halliday was sacked four times and faced heavy pressure several other times.
“It was kind of a war of defensive linemen … both sides were dominating up front,” Leach said. “Both defensive lines, I thought, were very impressive the entire game.”
Halliday completed 26-of-38 passes for 215 yards.
“Halliday had some problems,” Leach said. “He got hit hard a bunch of times, turned it over twice (on interceptions, plus the fumble), but he had a lot of composure, a lot of leadership on the sideline and out there on the field.”
Leach said the Trojans are “a great team. They’re very talented.” Some will debate those remarks, but the Cougars had plenty to do with USC’s poor showing before 77,823 fans.
“Obviously, a disappointing day today for USC football,” Kiffin said.
Kiffin added, “Give credit to Washington State, too. They played really hard on the road. We helped them out, obviously, but we have to give a lot of credit to their coaches and their players.”
For the second straight game, Kiffin replaced quarterback Cody Kessler with Max Wittek in the second half. Both players again looked quite ordinary, with Kessler’s 8-yard completion the longest of the night in USC’s lowest-scoring game against WSU since 1941.
“It was a very disappointing day today in the passing game,” Kiffin said. “I’ve never seen stats as bad as we did today.”
Horton played a major role in limiting the USC air game. The senior from Oakland, Calif., lined up against All-American wide receiver Marqise Lee much of the way and helped hold him to seven catches for 27 yards.
“We just covered him hard all day,” Leach said. “I think one thing that helped is we did get pressure on their quarterback, and we did hit him.”
True freshman Daquawn Brown, who grew up a few minutes away from the Memorial Coliseum, made his first start for WSU. The energetic cornerback led all players with 11 tackles.
“I came here to play from Day One,” Brown said. “I’m just doing what I was supposed to do.”
“He played incredibly hard,” Leach said. “He’s an incredibly confident person.”
Asked if he grew up a USC fan, the colorful Brown smiled and said, “I was just focused on Pop Warner (youth football).”
WSU defensive end Toni Pole, another Californian, said he drew only slight recruiting interest from the Trojans. When a reporter asked Pole (who blocked a field goal Saturday) if he ever wanted to play for USC, Pole’s answer was short and to the point.
“I’m where I want to be,” Pole said. “That’s all I have to say.”
On this night, the Cougars didn’t have to say a word. The scoreboard said it all.