Beating USC is ‘a start’ for Cougars

LOS ANGELES — The lobby emptied shortly after 1 a.m. at the Renaissance Hotel early Sunday morning, a handful of men wearing Washington State gear shuffling toward the elevator with joyful exhaustion.

“Man,” one of them said, “winning sure is a lot more fun than losing.”

There has been much of the latter and little of the former for the Cougars during the past five years. But Saturday’s improbable 10-7 victory over 25th-ranked USC might bode well for the future, considering how WSU’s schedule unfolds in the coming weeks.

Awaiting Saturday is Southern Utah, an FCS school and member of the Big Sky Conference. SUU seems capable enough — it beat Sun Belt foe South Alabama in its season opener, then pasted Division II Fort Lewis 49-0 on Saturday — but the Cougars should be heavily favored and victory will be expected.

So it will be the next week, when hapless rival Idaho (0-2) visits Martin Stadium, where the Cougars should have a fine opportunity to improve their record to 3-1. That would set up an interesting game against Stanford at CenturyLink Field on Sept. 28, though there obviously are two football games for WSU to win before any talk of trying to shock the Cardinal.

“It’s a start. That’s what we’re taking it as,” said left tackle Gunnar Eklund after Saturday’s win. “It starts right now for Washington State University. We’re just going to keep getting better.”

In many ways, they already have. Head coach Mike Leach spent much of last season lamenting WSU’s woe-is-us attitude, often criticizing his team for either failing to maintain focus after pulling into the lead, or for hanging their heads after falling behind.

There hasn’t been any of that through WSU’s first two games. Week 1’s 31-24 loss at Auburn was frustrating in its outcome, but the Cougars were adamant afterward that they could have — no, should have — won.

And Leach said it was obvious that even as they struggled their way through a game Saturday that wasn’t exactly aesthetically pleasing, there was a belief that they would be the ones celebrating when it was over.

“I really believe the second half coming out of the locker room, we really believed we were going to win, and that seemed to accelerate there in the fourth quarter,” Leach said. “Nothing had really happened, but I do think our composure and confidence rose in the fourth quarter.”

It was also a step for the Cougars toward developing a defensive identity. USC did find some success running the ball, as freshman Tre Madden took 32 carries for 151 yards, but if that was going to be the Trojans’ sole offensive source — and it was — the Cougars had to like their chances.

Leach described it as a battle of defensive lines, though each was trying to accomplish a different goal. USC used its size and speed up front to bother Cougars quarterback Connor Halliday and force him into four sacks and three turnovers, part of what prevented the Cougars’ offense from taking some of the ugliness out of this one.

And the Cougars’ defensive line needed only to prevent the big run, because Trojans quarterbacks Cody Kessler and Max Wittek proved so incompetent against WSU’s secondary that their longest completion was for 8 yards — unless you count WSU cornerback Damante Horton’s 70-yard interception return for a touchdown.

“The biggest thing is, it’s such a team win,” Halliday said. “Last week against Auburn, we played real well, but it was in spurts. The offense would play well, then the defense would let up a big play. I throw a pick, then the defense would get a stop. It was never together. For the defense to play the way they did tonight was absolutely amazing.”

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