The public address announcer’s warnings to stay off the field at Martin Stadium were totally and happily ignored. Fans jumped over fences to stream down from the stands, cheering, chanting and smiling as they gathered at midfield Friday night in a huge pulsing crowd of crimson to celebrate the Cougars’ 30-27 upset of USC and the home team’s coming of age as a giant killer.
“There’s a lot of people,” Washington State coach Mike Leach marveled during an on-field TV interview. “It’s like Woodstock, except everybody has their clothes on.”
While fans savored the joys of peace, love and the Cougars’ first upset of a top-five team since the 2003 Holiday Bowl, USC senior safety Chris Hawkins cried inside the Trojans’ locker room.
“It hurt,” he said. “We haven’t felt this way in a while.”
The Trojans’ winning streak ended at 13, all the elements that were fraying at the edges in their previous four wins this season unraveling enough on Friday to leave them regretful and sad-voiced while seemingly all of Pullman sang and fist-pumped around them.
The Trojans simply didn’t deserve to win, though they had one last chance when they got the ball at their own 25-yard line with 1 minute and 40 seconds left and could have made the Cougars nervous. Instead, Sam Darnold was sacked on second down by Jahad Woods and fumbled the ball, which was recovered by Derek Moore at the USC 18-yard line to trigger roars heard throughout the Palouse.
But the game was really lost before then, because of Cougar quarterback Luke Falk’s resourceful 34-for-51 passing performance for 340 yards and two touchdowns. Nothing USC tried fazed Falk, whose two touchdown passes gave him 105 for his career and tied him with Oregon’s Marcus Mariota for second in Pac-12 Conference history.
“There was a lot of times when we would change something and he would change something back and then we would change something and he would change something back,” USC linebacker Cameron Smith said. “Smart kid. Credit that guy.”
Save some credit also for Menifee, Calif., native Jamal Morrow, who gained 91 yards rushing with one touchdown and caught five passes for 47 yards and a touchdown. Little of what Morrow or the Cougars did came as a surprise to the Trojans (4-1, 2-1 Pac-12 South), but knowing what to expect and heading it off were different concepts.
“They played hard,” Darnold said. “We knew what they were going to do and it’s just a matter of executing at that point and they out-executed us, and I think that was the story of the game.”
Another crucial part of the plot was that Darnold never seemed to get into a comfortable rhythm Friday and completed only 15 of 29 passes for 164 yards with one interception. Still, he had one more chance to bring the Trojans back from the precipice, with 100 seconds left. He thought he’d do it.
“Whenever we have the opportunity to go down there and maybe kick a field goal or get down there and score and put the game away, you always think like that, as a competitor,” he said.
But after being pressured and throwing an incomplete pass he was sacked and lost the ball. USC’s last comeback hopes went with it.
“I thought Sam made some really good plays and there wasn’t good plays,” said Tyson Helton, the Trojans’ quarterbacks coach. “That’s playing quarterback, though. You’re going to have some good plays and you’re not going to have good plays.”
Darnold acknowledged his own faults. “I think I didn’t play my best, for sure,” he said. “There’s a lot to learn from. We’re going to look at the film and learn from there.”
The Trojans learned that although their offensive line was battered and bruised no one will give them any sympathy or any breaks. They also learned that third-down efficiency can make a big difference.
Coach Clay Helton had predicted that the game might hinge on that, “and getting off the field, and being able to keep our offense on the field,” and he was correct. “They did a nice job going eight for 18 and we were two for 11,” he said. “It ends up costing us a lot of plays defensively.”
As fans danced out into the cool, damp night, USC’s players exited their locker room with somber expressions. “That’s a good team we just played,” Hawkins said, “but I don’t think we really played to our potential.”
That applies to their season so far, not just their loss on Friday.