By KEN PETERS
LOS ANGELES – Forget the string of overtime defeats, the four-game losing streak and the fact that the quarterback is out with a broken leg. Washington State coach Mike Price remains upbeat.
“We’re excited. We have two games left and we’re going to the Coliseum to play the USC Trojans,” Price said. “This is awesome, to finish the season playing these two games.”
After facing Southern California, Washington State closes its season against rival Washington.
At stake in today’s Cougars-Trojans game is undisputed possession of the Pac-10 cellar. The teams are tied for ninth place with one conference victory apiece.
Having lost Jason Gesser, the conference’s second highest-rated passer, to a broken left leg last weekend, the Cougars (3-6, 1-5) are 11-point underdogs against the Trojans (4-5, 1-5).
Washington State has played three overtime games, losing all three during its current slump. USC is coming off a 44-38 victory at Arizona State when the Trojans blew a 29-point third quarter lead but came back to win in double overtime and snap a five-game losing streak.
Price, whose WSU roster has 38 players from California, knows the Los Angeles-area players will be especially excited to play at the Coliseum.
“I’ve seen so many Southern California kids go there and stink it up because they want to win so bad and show their family and friends how good they are. We want to be excited, but not too excited,” the Cougars coach said.
The WSU players’ trip home to Los Angeles also can create some other problems.
“I think sometimes we might be distracted because half the team is from there and relatives come by the hotel and try to see the players, so it’s a distraction,” Price said.
Matt Kegel, a redshirt freshman who has thrown just 31 pass in his budding college career, gets his first start. He was 11-for-23 for 126 yards after taking over for Gesser in a 27-24 overtime loss to sixth-ranked Oregon last weekend.
USC coach Paul Hackett was impressed with the way the Cougars stayed in the game.
“They lose arguably the best passer in the conference, and the new quarterback comes in and leads them the length of the field for a score, then he did it again in the second half,” Hackett said. “He falls a little short in overtime, but it’s a tribute to Mike Price and their system.
“I don’t think they’ll be much different (without Gesser).”
The Cougars’ offense features Milton Wynn, who has 47 catches and is averaging 98 passing yards per game, and Marcus Williams, who has 27 catches. Dave Minnich (126 carries for 553 yards) and Deon Burnett (84 for 345) share the running chores.
Marcus Trufant, Chris Martin and Mory Banks each have at least two interceptions for WSU this year.
The Trojans, inconsistent on offense much of this season, made progress in their win over Arizona State, with Sultan McCullough rushing for 176 yards and Carson Palmer passing for 279.
One of the Trojans’ best defensive players, linebacker Markus Steele, will miss his second straight game with an ankle injury.
USC holds a 35-4-2 edge over Washington State in Los Angeles, although the Cougars won the last meeting at the Coliseum, taking a 28-21 victory three years ago on Ryan Leaf’s 51-yard touchdown pass with 4:18 remaining.
Hackett figures the Trojans will have their hands full this time.
“They’ve played three overtime games and what does that tell you?” he said. “They’re very competitive.”
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