Cougs’ defense leads to WSU’s upset of Trojans

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LOS ANGELES — Andrew Furney had just kicked a 41-yard field goal to give Washington State a three-point lead in the fourth quarter — yes, over USC — and now, Mike Leach gathered his entire squad for a brief, pointed talk on the sideline.

“He just told us, ‘It’s ours to take right now,’ ‘’ said offensive tackle Gunnar Eklund. “He told the defense, ‘Take it from ‘em in their own home.’ ‘’

Damned if they didn’t. Three minutes and three seconds later, the LA Coliseum was a sea of Washington State players rising for emphatic body bumps and suffocating hugs. The Cougars had stunned the Trojans, and college football, with a 10-7 victory here Saturday night.

“Go, Cougs,” said a beaming Furney on an interview stand a little later, and this ought to be the kind of victory that invites such propulsion.

Understand, dating back to 2002, when the Cougars upended USC in Pullman on the way to the Rose Bowl, no program has underscored WSU’s seemingly bottomless abyss like the Trojans.

In eight victories since that night in ‘02, the Trojans have won by an average of 33 points, lowlighted by the 69-0 massacre in 2008 when the beat-up Cougars essentially just chose to try to get out alive rather than compete.

Not on this sweaty evening.

The WSU defense was marvelous in the absence of an offense, heaping more misery on USC’s self-inflicted woes by holding the Trojans to 193 total yards.

This is very likely a loss that will eventually get the Trojans’ Lane Kiffin fired, and indeed, as WSU quarterback Connor Halliday was taking a knee in the victory formation, thousands of USC fans were chanting, “Fire Kiffin!”

But that’s a story for another day. The Cougars were the headliners in this one, squeezing out just enough to turn the tables on their old tormenters.

It was 7-7 at halftime, thanks to a 70-yard interception return for a touchdown inside the final minute by WSU senior cornerback Damante Horton. WSU had blown a couple of chances, one inside the USC 10, on a Halliday interception, one of his three turnovers against a voracious Trojans defense.

After gaining only 73 first-half yards, USC began showing a pulse after the break with Max Wittek replacing Cody Kessler at quarterback, but it was an ultra-conservative game plan.

The Cougars did a masterful job defending All-American receiver Marqise Lee, shackling him to the tune of 27 yards on seven catches in zone defense.

Asked about the plan on Lee, the taciturn Horton said, “To shut him out.”

It evolved, Leach would say, into “a war of D-linemen, their D-line against ours.”

And so it was.

The Trojans moved the ball better in the second half, but misfired on two field-goal attempts, one when WSU’s Toni Pole broke through for a block.

A big play, a single big play, would win this thing, and finally, WSU got it. On third-and-nine from the Cougar 21 with five minutes left, Halliday dumped a short screen pass to sophomore Dom Williams. He was almost downed after five yards, but broke free down the sideline for a 49-yard gain, all the way to the USC 30.

Three plays later, the reliable Furney converted, and that’s when Leach called a team meeting.

“I really do think in the second half,” he said, “we believed we were gonna win.”

It remained for Horton to jump a route by Darreus Rogers and get his second interception of the evening at the USC 32. Moments later, a small knot of WSU fans was leading the team in the fight song, and the Cougars were savoring a win as 15 ½-point underdogs.

“There’s a lot of ghosts in this stadium,” said Leach. “There’s some magic here.”

An LA writer recited the stats - USC was 57-8-4 all-time against WSU - reflective of the notion that “Washington State is never supposed to win here.”

“I didn’t know that stat,” Leach said. “I’m glad I didn’t run into you before the game.”

So now the Cougars go home to play Southern Utah and Idaho. They can’t get ahead of themselves. In two games, they haven’t substituted on the offensive line and only for a couple of snaps on the defensive line, so it could be a thin margin for error.

That won’t, shouldn’t, keep them from celebrating. Furney, talking about his kick, said it was all like clockwork, “just doing what I do.”

Everything was perfect. The snap, the hold.

And for the Cougars, the night.

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