Washington State is alone in first in the Pac-12 North standings.
Nobody else has played a conference game, but for a team that has spent the past five years fighting to crawl back toward relevancy, Saturday’s 10-7 win against the USC Trojans, and the subsequent slightly misleading bump in the division race, was a reward for notching a signature win.
“I think they feel good, but the biggest thing I’ve been proud of them for is they finish games,” said Cougars coach Mike Leach Monday. “We haven’t let things obstruct our composure.”
That was a recurring problem during Leach’s inaugural season, when the Cougars went 3-9 and were routinely unable to respond to any sort of in-game adversity. Leach complained of players showing “basset hound faces” after a loss to BYU and regularly kvetched about his group’s collective effort, calling his uninterested seniors “empty corpses.”
The negativity has been absent in 2013. Leach was particularly impressed with how the WSU offensive and defensive lines battled.
“It was definitely a body-punch game where everybody was battered up and you try to be the last man standing,” Leach said. “I was proud of the toughness our kids had, especially when you consider the environment, especially when you consider really tough back-to-back road environments.”
WSU opens the home slate with a 3:30 p.m. game Saturday against FCS Southern Utah. They’ll need QB Connor Halliday to play better than he has the first two weeks of the season if they want to improve their 43-2 all-time record against Big Sky Conference opponents.
Halliday struggled against a talented defense Saturday (26 of 38 for 215 yards and two INTs), but WSU’s much-improved defensive front kept the game close until PK Andrew Furney knocked down the go-ahead 42-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter.
Leach had nothing but good things to say about the defense.
“I think the defensive line has come a long way,” Leach said. “We tackled really hard, physically and really well.”
The statistics back him up. The Cougars held the Trojans to 193 yards of total offense, and harassed Trojan quarterbacks Max Wittek and Cody Kessler so thoroughly that by the third quarter, USC coach Lane Kiffin refused to throw the ball down the field.
The pair combined to go 11 of 21 for 54 yards, and two interceptions to WSU CB Damante Horton, who Monday was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week.
“He’s kind of a perfectionist, so some of that would slow him down, but now he’s relaxed and lets himself play,” Leach said of the senior. “He understands that once in a while there’s going to be a mistake, but just let it fly and play as hard as you can, and I think it’s really paid off for him.”
Lost in the best defensive effort in recent memory was PK Andrew Furney’s field goal with 3:03 left in the game, as most of the 77,823 fans piled on the noise — at least those who weren’t booing Kiffin. The Cougars also knocked off the Huskies in last year’s Apple Cup thanks to Furney’s late-game heroics.
Leach’s take on why the Lou Groza Award contender has had so much success highlighted his day at the podium: “You know how weird kickers are. Andrew’s no exception to that, but he’s certainly not as weird as some of them, and I think that alone transcends him above the group.”
Partyin’ in Pullman
Washington State somehow fell outside the Top 20 in the Princeton Review’s annual ranking of the best party schools in the country, though Leach’s description of the environment in College Hill might have reviewers requesting a redo.
“I thought it was pretty impressive,” he said. “They said the sky bar on top of the dorms was rocking . . . It was pretty wild. There was a flag at the airport when we landed . . . I heard it was pretty exciting around here.”
Idaho game time 7:30 p.m.
In a move that upset writers and enthused tailgaters, the school announced the Cougars will kick off their Homecoming game against Idaho at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 21.