Three straight wins over the likes of Idaho, Baylor and Stanford following a decent but ultimately large loss to mighty Auburn begged the question.
Good? Bad? Somewhere in between?
Where, exactly, do the Cougars stand?
In front of a packed and thundering Martin Stadium crowd, plus a national television audience, Alex Brink and his Washington State Cougars played a whale of a game against a USC team that was favored by 18 ½. It was a USC team that had won 48 of their last 50 games since losing here in 2002. It was a USC team that hadn’t lost to a Pac-10 foe in 24 straight tries.
At game’s end, with Brink looking for a trio of receivers in the endzone, there was to be no Christmas present under the tree for these fighting Cougars.
But, yes Virginia, these guys are for real.
The offense, fueled by a supercharged offensive line and a perfect game plan aimed at neutralizing USC’s fearsome linebackers, worked with machine-like efficiency from their second series on.
The defense was worn ragged by Steve Smith’s 11 catches for 186 yards but pursued and blasted with abandon.
The special teams, which appeared to have recovered what would have been a game-changing USC fumble at the Trojan 11 early in the fourth quarter, were led by kicker Loren Langley, whose crisis of confidence was exorcised convincingly as he nailed 3 of 3 field goal attempts.
Brink, however, may finally have rid himself of the doubters who have dogged him since he became the starter two seasons ago. He completed 26 of 46 passes for 287 yards two TDs. But there was also the way he went about doing it. He was calm, cool and controlled. He guided an offense that threw a little bit of everything at USC – misdirection, empty backfield, two tight ends, three-step drops, trips left, bunches right, and more. And when the Cougars had to have a TD he guided them on a seven-play, 80-yard drive that narrowed the score to 28-22 with 4 minutes, 18 seconds left on the clock.
He was succinct after the game, telling sideline reporter Bud Namek, “It’s pretty clear we’ve made some strides – we’ve learned from past games and past seasons.”
Junior Michael Bumpus, who entered the game with more receptions that any player in the Pac-10, was Brink’s favorite target. He collected 11 balls for 112 yards. Jason Hill snagged seven for 49 yards and a TD.
The offensive line – missing two starters, featuring two redshirt freshmen and a guard-forced-to-play-tackle – afforded Brink immaculate protection. The Cougars surrendered no sacks and produced 131 net rushing yards against one of the nation’s stingiest run defenses. In all, the Cougars out gained the Trojans 418 yards to 404.
“We have to guard against being happy or content with being close,” head coach Bill Doba told Bob Robertson after the game. “To play them tough and then lose next week at Oregon State would not be progress.”
The loss drops the Cougars to 3-2 on the season and USC improves to 4-0.
It was a hard hitting affair, and Doba said the Cougs came out of the game a little banged up. The most serious injury, and the only one he mentioned, was to DT Fevaea'i Ahmu, (foot) who left in the first half and did not return. The extent of the injury won't be known until X-Rays are in but Doba said he feared they had lost the defensive tackle for the season to a broken foot. Ahmu was on crutches on the sideline for the second half. Ahmu suffered a stress fracture in his foot late in fall camp and missed the Cougars' first three games. His first action of the season came last week in the win over Stanford.
The Cougars unveiled state-of-the-art new uniforms against the Trojans. Among other things, their made of material that is hard to grab. They also feature the word COUGARS written in large letters across the chest. Since the early 1980s, WSU has had WASHINGTON STATE emblazoned across the front, but never COUGARS. The new outfits were paired with the crimson helmets the Cougars normally wear only on the road.
Dwight Tardy was WSU's leading rusher with 62 yards on 11 carries. He also caught two balls, including one for the Cougars' final score, for 21 yards.
With his second quarter TD catch, Cougar senior Jason Hill upped his career scoring receptions total to 29 -- three shy of the Pac-10 record shared by 1970s Stanford receiver Ken Margerum and injured USC receiver Dwayne Jarrett.
Cougar punter Darryl Blunt, who had choice words for USC players during pre-game warm ups, averaged 44.3 yards on four punts, including one that was downed at the USC one-foot-line.