When an unranked team beats a ranked team, there is a knee-jerk reaction to place the blame squarely on the ranked team for “not taking care of its business.” Case in point: Washington State’s win Saturday night at the Los Angeles Coliseum over the No. 25 USC Trojans.
The last 72 hours has seen a media blitz of assaults on USC coach Lane Kiffin (deservedly so), criticism of USC’s two quarterbacks (deservedly so) and open-ended questions about what the heck is wrong in Troy.
Lost in all of that hot-seat banter (except maybe in Pullman, Wash.) is the fact that Washington State won the football game. Most of the East Coast probably woke up Sunday morning and said “Really? How’d that happen. Trojans must have tanked.”
Maybe. Or maybe Washington State should be getting more credit for winning on the road.
“I don’t worry about any credit,” said Washington State coach Mike Leach. “We had the game. We came out on top and it was a really tightly contested game. USC is a great team. This was one of the great defensive battles. It was back-and-forth. It was a very exciting game even though there wasn’t a lot of points. Maybe they’ll replay it so I suggest people on the East Coast watch it because it was an entertaining game.”
In a contest Leach described as “a bloodbath in the trenches with all kinds of body punches,” it was the Cougs who threw one more haymaker than the Trojans -- who lost at home to Washington State for the first time since 2000.
With neither team’s quarterback(s) playing particularly well, Leach credited his defense for staying poised and being opportunistic. Both defenses combined for 18 tackles for a loss, five sacks and five turnovers. Damante Horton, recently named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week, snatched a pair of interceptions, returning one 70 yards for a touchdown just before halftime. Andrew Furney’s 41-yard field goal was the difference.
“Games unfold in a funny kind of way and you have to adapt throughout the course of the game,” Leach said. “It was a tight game. As time went on it became a battle of defensive lines. Both defensive lines were the most dominant forces in the game. USC’s defensive line was dominant. Our defensive line was dominant. It became a major trench war with the upper hand being both defensive lines so you kind of adapt accordingly. I don’t think the quarterbacks on either side settled in and both sides adapted around that.”
Players speaking to the media Monday said several times that they went into the game “expecting to win.”
“I think that was one of our main focuses, was confidence,” said defensive lineman Ioane Gauta. “We had confidence in each other making plays. Our secondary handled the game real well and we feel like we dominated the front seven. Our linebackers made plays. They made big tackles for losses. We’re proud of that.”
This game might serve as a turning point in the Mike Leach era at Washington State. Because it’s one thing to talk about expecting to win. It’s another to actually play like you believe it.
“The most important thing is to remove as much clutter as you can from your mind and focus on what you and your abilities can do and where they can take you and just go out there and do your best and do it without any hesitation,” Leach said. “Together, expect to be successful and do it over and over. Sometimes people do it with the game as a whole. I think instead it needs to be each individual battle you play and some of that has to be the enjoyment of engaging in one battle after the next and then trying to win each battle. I think our team in particular has done a better job of that.”
With an FCS opponent in Southern Utah coming up this week, players are doing their best to put the USC victory behind them and focus on what’s ahead.
“We finished, and I’m proud of them for that,” Leach said. “We went out there and played hard and not let things disrupt our composure the biggest question is are we focused on Southern Utah right now? Because that’s what we need to do.”