A hint of what's to come?

BOB ROBERTSON has monitored nearly every Washington State football game since 1972, back when polyester suits were cool and scribes waving cigars around the news room was pretty much part of the culture. A long time ago. Robertson said Saturday's WSU-USC game was one of the finest in Martin Stadium history. Who am I to argue? A classic it was.

USC 28, Washington State 22.

It would have been nice if anybody in one of those revolutionary new Cougar jerseys had been asked to really cover SC's Steve Smith over the middle, but even Smith's big day is excusable. The Cougar defense had to give up something. Space over the middle was the fatal flaw. USC was too good not to exploit it.

But admit it. You didn't think Coug QB Alex Brink would be throwing for the end zone on the final play with a chance to win. I didn't.

Washington State long ago elevated the near-miss to a science but this was not the tease and then the fall. This was a game of back and forth, of clear-eyed preparation and crisp execution. The hitting was brutal. This was fun.

And I'll say it. He still has more career losses than wins but against Southern Cal, Brink was otherworldly.

Maybe not his numbers and certainly not the outcome, but against this competition, Brink was beyond good. Against 25-in-a-row 'SC, against a defense that had the pundits saying USC might shut the Cougs out and end the nation's second longest scoring streak, he was in charge. Seeing it all. Making it happen.

THE COUGS rallied back and back again Saturday with Brink throwing to Jason Hill, who righted his season and is back on the fast track to the next level. And, now appearing in his starring role as Mr. Consistency, slot guy Michael Bumpus. Tight end Cody Boyd and wide receiver Brandon Gibson added leaping, twisting highlight reel grabs.

Defensive end Mkristo Bruce demonstrated that he doesn't need Stanford on the field to kick somebody around, and how 'bout that offensive line?

O-line coach George Yarno mixed a little grit with a little fire and plugged some impressive young guys into some big holes. Against USC's much lauded defense, they did not allow a sack. Zero. They helped produce more rushing yards than any of USC's previous opponents -- Arkansas, Nebraska, Arizona. More passing yards. More points, too. Well done.

One observation. I'm still waiting for a defense to prove it can shut down DeMaundray Woolridge. One of at least three quality Cougar running backs along with Dwight Tardy and Derrell Hutsona, Wideload Woolridge flattened defenders at Auburn a few weeks back and did it again Saturday. Next up is Oregon State. I'd like to see Doba and coach Kelly Skipper unleash Demaundry until the Beaves prove they can do what Auburn and SC couldn't.

AND ON THE SUBJECT of game turners; When is holding, not holding? Maybe that will be explained in the days to come but the more I look at the tape, the officials had it right the first time, when they identified Smith's block on a key fourth-quarter USC third down as a hold.

The refs might have talked it over -- with some lobbying from USC coach Pete Carroll added in -- and considering the advantage/disadvantage figured it was a pretty lame hold as holds go. But what I saw was unprecedented: Officials second-guessing themselves and screwing up before the boys in the booth could screw it up when given their chance. With the benefit of a gift first down, the Trojans resumed their 83-yard and clock-killing scoring drive. A game this intense will always amplify an official's error, if that's what this was.

Luckily for all, this game wasn't about finding officiating fault. This seems to me more about a hint of what's to come.

Yes, USC extended its reign over the West Coast, but what has been a stranglehold appears to be weakening. USC's iron grip was loosened a bit last week, when an average Arizona team scared SC into the fourth quarter. Now comes Washington State, pushing USC to the last play.

Either Washington State is pretty damned good, or USC is slipping. My guess?

It's a lot of both.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Weaver has been following and/or covering the Cougars for the better part of 30 years. For the second straight season, the former Spokesman-Review sports editor and columnist brings his unique insights to Cougfan.com readers every week.

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