There have been a lot of big Cougar wins over the years … dramatic Apple Cups, fifth-ranked Texas in the Holiday Bowl, No. 1-ranked UCLA in 1988, just to name a few. However at this point in the program's development, few could be more important than going on the road and getting a win against the nationally ranked Trojans.
Like many others, I believe USC didn't deserve that No. 25 ranking coming in, but that has little to do with the odds WSU faced. The mental hurdle that had to be overcome to even think about winning that game was incredible. Throughout the week, we heard Cougar players saying they had no chance against USC in past years. There was a talent disparity, but also a lack of confidence. This time, there was a much different tune leading up to the game.
CF.C'S MONDAY MORNING QUARTERBACK WITH WINNIPEG IN 2011.
The veteran players on that team have been through the gamut of emotions over their careers in Pullman. Those ups and downs can wear on young athletes. Mike Leach has resurrected the mindset of a group. No longer are the Cougs downtrodden. They scrap and battle for every catch, tackle and yard. It was refreshing to hear the confidence of the defensive players. There was no doubt in their minds they were going to lock down the best receiver in college football and render the USC offense completely ineffective. The offense clearly didn't have its best game, but they never stopped battling. When a big play had to be made, someone stepped up and made it. Those are signs of growth.
10 OBSERVATIONS WHILE BREAKING DOWN THE FILM:
1. It had to be hard for Mike Leach to limit his play calling to screens and runs for most of the second half, but it showed incredible discipline. He knew that he was in a defensive battle and the last thing his team could afford was another Connor Halliday turnover.
2. Connor clearly didn't learn from his red zone mistake at Auburn. As a quarterback you have to understand that the throwing windows are much smaller inside the 15-yard-line and you cannot be late. His timing was clearly off on the interception, but instead of checking the ball down or throwing it away he forced a throw into double coverage.
3. That being said, I do not like what WSU has tried to do in the scoring area the past two weeks. They seem to go away from what worked to get them down there. I want to see more double slants (like they scored on against Auburn,) tunnel screens and fades to their big receivers.
4. I am a big fan of this wide receiver group. They are big, fast and athletic and they run good routes. More important, they make plays to help each other out. Their perimeter blocking is phenomenal, which ended up leading to the big gain by Dominique Williams to set up the game-winning field goal. Williams made some great cuts, but without Brett Bartolone getting a piece of the USC defender he may not have gotten to the sideline.
5. Although I probably don't need to reiterate it any more than everyone else has, Connor has to protect the football. I know the Cougs won, but the game could have very easily gone the other way and No. 12 would have been a big reason why. Coach Leach had to specifically change his play calling just to ensure his quarterback wouldn't turn the ball over. After Williams' big catch and run to get down to the USC 30, Leach's next three play calls were as follows: bubble screen, run, tunnel screen. A 42-yard field goal is no gimme at any level and with over three minutes left, a three point lead was no guarantee of a win. A coach confident in his offense puts the ball in the air to get at least 10 more yards.
1. Although I should have mentioned it earlier, defensive coordinator Mike Breske deserves as much credit as anyone for that win. The job he has done in one short year with that defense is nothing short of incredible. They are much more athletic (partly a credit to Paul Wulff's recruiting and new strength coach Jason Loscalzo), but they also play with a confidence and tenacity not seen on the Palouse in a long time.
2. They can rush the passer, but I am not yet sold on the Cougar defensive line against the run. If Lane Kiffin didn't have so much pride, he would have handed the ball off 60 times instead of letting his quarterbacks almost single-handedly lose the game. Tre Madden averaged almost five yards per carry and was the only reason USC moved the football at all throughout that game on Saturday.
3. Something that would help alleviate the pressure on the D-line would be more consistent play from the linebacker group. There were times throughout the game when Darryl Monroe looked like the best player on the field. Then he would completely disappear for large chunks. For the WSU defense to continue to improve, all the linebackers must show up for four quarters.
4. Fortunately, much of the Pac-12 is going to rely on the pass this year and the secondary now appears to be a strength for WSU. That group is brash, confident and importantly, talented. They remind me of the guys that were rolling around campus before and during my time in Pullman. You might remember some of the names: Thompson, Newman, Abdullah (x2), Trufant, Coleman, David, Paymah, Brackenridge and Frampton.
5. A huge piece of the WSU defensive game plan was to play what is known as quarter/quarter/half defense. Referred to as Cover 6 by some people, the safety to the wide side of the field (Bucannon) has the deep half like Cover 2, while the cornerback to his side (Horton) only has to cover the short area of the field. To the boundary, the other safety (Taliulu) and corner (Brown) both have a deep quarter of the field. The only reason the Cougars can play this coverage is because of Bucannon's ability to cover an entire deep half. This led to Horton being able to jump short routes which gave him the opportunity for interceptions and tackles for loss.
There is a new culture in the Washington State football program. We saw it being implemented last year, but not without trials. Things may have begun to change, but the job is not finished. Speaking for former players and alumni, we couldn't be more proud of that group of guys - just look at our Twitter feeds. But this can't be the peak of the season. There is still a lot of football left to play and hopefully a lot more great victories ahead.