“It’s like Woodstock, except everybody’s got their clothes on.”
That was Washington State head coach Mike Leach, on the field in Pullman, describing the scene after his no. 16 Cougars upended fifth-ranked USC, 30-27, on Friday night. It represents Wazzu’s first victory over a top-five opponent in 11 years and puts the team in the legitimate college football playoff conversation. Or at least as much as a win can in September.
Leach and defensive coordinator Alex Grinch haunted the Trojans’ injury-depleted offense all night, devising a plan to force quarterback Sam Darnold into a mediocre outing (15-of-29 passing for 164 yards with an interception), thwart the run game (28 carries for 77 yards outside of one long Ronald Jones II touchdown scamper), and own the time-of-possession battle by more than 10 minutes. The final touches on the win were sealed when (future Jet?) Darnold lost a fumble after being sacked on USC’s final drive, unable to bring the Trojans back like he has several times before.
The foundation of Washington State’s offensive success was built on the type of approach that USC should’ve used: attack the flats, rely on the run, and go deep only when necessary. Quarterback Luke Falk executed this to near-perfection, and it showed in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways; the Cougars went 8-of-18 on third-down conversions, while USC was 2-of-11.
The Trojans also let several key chances slip away. Most notably, they failed to turn the highlight of the night—Uchenna Nwosu’s tipped-pass-breakup-turned-pick near the goal line—into a touchdown. USC ran three ineffective plays before kicking a field goal, failing to seize upon Nwosu’s acrobatics.
The Cougars, meanwhile, struck when they had the opportunity.
This matchup was labeled a trap game from the moment it appeared on USC’s bye-week-less schedule. It had all the makings of a #Pac12AfterDark upset: Friday night, in Pullman, in a packed and frenzied Martin Stadium. But the reality is that this result didn’t seem fluky. Wazzu looked like one of the country’s top teams, and with a win over USC its dreams of making the conference title game—and going beyond—suddenly feel within reach.
Darnold and USC will be left searching for answers, as a different West Coast program has vaulted into the playoff hunt: The Cougs are for real.