Senior Damante Horton, who was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week after he returned an interception 70 yards for a touchdown late in the first half against the Trojans and had another one in the fourth quarter that helped secure the win, appears to have solidified one starting position. But senior Nolan Washington, who missed Saturday’s game with an undisclosed injury, and true freshman Daquawn Brown are battling for the other job. Brown had a game-high 11 tackles in his first start at USC.
“To walk in there for your starting debut … I thought was pretty impressive,” Leach said. “He’s ridiculously competitive and I think that’s allowed him to be impressive.”
Leach said he expects both Brown and Washington to see plenty of playing time versus Southern Utah at 3:30 p.m. Saturday (TV: Pac-12 Networks). As for Horton, Leach said the biggest adjustment he has made is learning to relax. He said Horton is a “perfectionist” and that resulted in him playing too stiff.
“He’s more physical than you think,” Leach said. “He’s always been a good cover guy and has a nose for the ball.”
LEACH SAID HIS biggest concern entering Saturday’s game staying focused on the Thunderbirds. Last year, Southern Utah lost 50-31 at California en route to a 5-6 record. The Thunderbirds (2-0), who compete in Football Championship Subdivision’s Big Sky Conference, have a 2-0 record.
“Southern Utah you certainly can argue that they should’ve beat Cal,” Leach said. “They’re a big, physical group.”
But he also noted that “there’s not two teams that are more physical (than Auburn and USC) and our guys held up.”
Leach repeatedly praised his team’s strong chemistry and focus. He said he was impressed with how his team rebounded from how the Cougars (1-1 overall, 1-0 conference) rebounded from their 31-24 loss Aug. 31 at Auburn.
“That second half, I think our group came out focused and with a purpose,” said Leach, referring to the USC game. “There’s a point in the game where you have to take the game away from the other guy. I thought we did that.”
The Trojans (1-1, 0-1) only produced 193 yards of total offense, which were their fewest in a game since 1989. Leach said the “defensive line has come a long way” and the entire defensive unit is tackling well.
“The chemistry — everyone is pulling for each other — is huge,” he said, adding that the defensive performance against USC was the best in his two years as WSU’s coach.
As for the Cougars’ offense, it only produced 222 yards. Quarterback Connor Halliday completed 26 of 38 passes for 215 yards and two interceptions. His biggest play came late in the game when he completed a screen pass that sophomore Dominique Williams turned into a 50-yard gain. The reception helped set up Andrew Furney’s go-ahead field goal with 3:03 minutes left.
“As the game went on we tried to attack their perimeter because we felt we were better than them out there,” Leach said. “We called as many things as we could to get the ball out there.”
After starting with consecutive road games for the first time since 1996, Leach is looking forward to returning to Martin Stadium for two consecutive contests.
“We’re looking forward to it,” Leach said. “It’s always better to play at home and in front of your fans.”
Most importantly, he said, playing at home eliminates the distractions that come with travel.
Leach called the turnout for the team’s return at Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport “pretty impressive.” Because of delays, the team did not land until 4 a.m. Despite that, Leach said there was a sizable crowd to greet the team.
The “Fire (coach Lane) Kiffin” chants at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum were audible on TV, but Leach said he did not hear them.
“The whole stadium is just a blur of noise,” he said.
Leach said he received multiple congratulatory texts after the victory, which was the Cougars’ first against a ranked opponent since beating Oregon in 2006. It also marked their first win against USC since 2002 to end an eight-game losing streak in the series.
“I’ll get a few when I’m watching film at 2 a.m.,” he said.