Grime & glory: 'The Damante Horton Game'

WHEN WASHINGTON STATE hired Mike Leach in 2011, fans had a different idea of what his signature win would look like. It is doubtful that anyone would have projected a defensive-minded battle that was not settled until Damante Horton intercepted Max Wittek in the fourth quarter to secure a 10-7 win Saturday night against No. 25 USC at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

"I'm really excited for our guys," Leach said during a postgame radio interview. "It's a big win and one we need to draw from."

After watching Leach's 10 seasons at Texas Tech, it seemed more likely that his first win against a ranked opponent would come in a 55-52 double-overtime affair.

This one was no less dramatic, though.

After all, when the Cougars defeat the Trojans, they usually are.

There was Matt Kegel's 242 passing yards in 2000, WSU's last win at USC. Then there was a pair of 35-yard field goals in '02 by Drew Dunning, the latter of which resulted in his being mobbed in a sea of crimson during a 30-27 overtime win – the last victory in the series before Saturday.

If those games are remembered for Kegel and Dunning, this one will forever be associated with Damante Horton as he helped end an eight-game losing streak in the series. The Cougars' offense was reeling during the first half as quarterback Connor Halliday threw two interceptions, including one on third-and-goal at the Trojans' 9-yard line, and had three turnovers. The most damaging moment came when Halliday attempted a desperation throw, which resulted in a fumble recovered by USC defensive lineman Devon Kennard, who returned the ball to WSU's 22. Six plays later, starting quarterback Cody Kessler scored on a 4-yard run.

As the Cougars struggled to move the ball, it appeared the Trojans would take a 7-0 lead into halftime.

Enter Horton.

The junior cornerback jumped a route and returned Kessler's interception 70 yards for a touchdown with just 27 seconds remaining in the half.

Defensive coordinator Mike Breske's defense refused to relinquish the momentum. While Tre Madden finished with a game-high 150 yards on 32 carries, WSU made plays when it counted as the Trojans only converted three of 13 third downs and none during the first half.

IT MIGHT HAVE been a fourth-down play that was most significant, though. On fourth-and-8 at the Cougars' 35, backup Max Wittek, who replaced an ineffective Kessler at halftime, found standout wide receiver Marqise Lee for a 7-yard gain, just to turn the ball over on downs. Lee finished with a mere 27 yards on seven receptions.

WSU was not finished. The Cougars held the Trojans to a three-and-out on their ensuing possession. That is when Halliday, who completed 26 of 38 passes for 215 yards, took control. He found Dominique Williams for a 49-yard reception on third-and-9 to USC's 30. The Cougars did not do much from there, but they did not need it with Andrew Furney.

While USC's Andre Heidari missed two fields goals – one was blocked by defensive tackle Toni Pole – Furney had little difficulty splitting the uprights with 3:03 minutes left for the go-ahead score from 42 yards out. The kick would have been good from at least another 10 yards back. It was his second straight game-winning kick in a Pac-12 contest as he secured a 31-28 Apple Cup win in overtime last November.

"It's just one of those things that you go out and practice every day," the senior said. "It's a routine play."

But unlike his kick against the Huskies, this one did not guarantee WSU's first win against a ranked opponent since beating Oregon in 2006.

Senior nose tackle Ioane Gauta said he was relying on Horton to keep his promise to secure a second interception.

"I told him, ‘Bro, we need another one,' " Gauta said.

"That's the time where you've got to buckle down and make a play. That's what we did."

Senior safety Deone Bucannon agreed.

"He performs in big-time situations," he said. "He's clutch."

HORTON SAID HE simply knew the Trojans' routes from studying. Meanwhile, offensive lineman Gunnar Eklund knew all about the Trojans' history. Growing up in Lake Stevens, he watched as the Trojans dominated the conference for most of the last decade — and grew to dream of beating them.

That opportunity finally came when Dion Bailey, who corralled Halliday's second interception during the first half, was cited for pass interference. That enabled the Cougars to run out the clock.

"I was always watching USC when they were in their prime," Eklund said. "I always wanted to play them and beat them."

Fans expected such dramatic wins from Leach when he came to Pullman.

Bucannon agreed USC should be a game that propels WSU to success after its frustrating 31-24 season-opening loss at Auburn.

"This definitely feels great," he said. "We knew what we were capable of – we just had to show everyone else."


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