PULLMAN – If Saturday’s Pac-10 opener with the University of Southern California was to be a measuring stick of Washington State’s progress, the answer is obvious.
The Cougars don’t measure up yet.
Despite their best offensive output of the season, despite forcing three Trojan turnovers, despite leading 7-0 less than four minutes in, WSU went down to its 12th consecutive defeat at the hands of a FBS foe, this one 50-16 to No. 20 USC.
The 24,310 at Martin Stadium on a perfect Palouse fall day – warm and sunny with a slight breeze – witnessed the stark difference between the Cougars and the rest of the conference.
USC, mixing in three tailbacks and fullback Stanley Havili, pushed the WSU front around, running for 285 yards on 39 carries, a hard-to-fathom 7.3 yards per rush average.
When the Trojans did pass, quarterback Matt Barkley had all the time he needed to find an open receiver, and he finished 16 of 25 for 290 yards with three touchdowns. With backup Mitch Mustain hitting on 4 of his 5 attempts in mop-up time, USC threw for 328 yards.
In all, the Trojans (4-0, 1-0 in Pac-10 play) had 20 plays of 10 or more yards and 613 yards of total offense against a WSU defense that seemed almost allergic to tackling.
“We just couldn’t stop them, force them to punt,” said Cougar coach Paul Wulff. “We just couldn’t handle it.”
From the very first USC possession. But that’s jumping ahead. After all, the Trojans took the field at their 41 – a WSU pooch kickoff went awry, leading to the good field position – trailing 7-0.
Yes, Washington State scored on its initial drive for the first time in more than two years, the last time coming against Portland State in 2008.
The Cougars (1-3, 0-1) came out with four wide receivers and running the no-huddle offense Wulff and offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy used so effectively as coaches at Eastern Washington. With the Trojans spread out, WSU moved 80 yards on nine plays, all but two passes.
WSU ran nearly every play from the spread formation, even mixing in a little Nevada pistol action, and threw 41 times, with starting quarterback Jeff Tuel finishing 24 of 37 for 222 yards.
But the final pass of the first drive was by receiver Jeffrey Solomon, a former high school quarterback. He took a reverse pitch and lofted a 29-yard toss to Jared Karstetter. The 6-foot-4 Karstetter walled off the 5-8 Nickell Robey and, for the first time since 2007 against Arizona State, WSU led 7-0 against a ranked team.
“It set the tempo,” Tuel said of the quick start. “Offense threw the first punch, got the place fired up, rocking.”
For about 13 seconds, or the time it took Havili, who finished with 187 all-purpose yards, to weave his way 59 yards – breaking at least four tackles – into the end zone.
“We told our defense all week, they’re a big-play team,” Wulff said.
And they knew Havili, who has hurt WSU in the past, was part of that.
“It was something we worked on all week,” said cornerback Daniel Simmons. “(Cornerbacks coach Jody) Sears was yelling ‘Watch Stanley Havili,’ during practice and today, we didn’t do it. It was very frustrating.”
But not as frustrating as the next WSU offensive play.
Tuel misread the Trojan defense and Robey earned a measure of revenge. He stepped in front of Marquess Wilson at the WSU 25, took Tuel’s toss in stride and scored. Twenty-six seconds after the Cougars had scored first, USC led 14-7.
“Crap,” Wulff said his response was, and before adding, “let’s turn this thing back around.”
The Cougars couldn’t, not right away. A short drive ended in a punt to the USC 24 and Havili struck again. He took a short pass from Barkley, made Alex Hoffman-Ellis miss and rumbled 58 yards to the WSU 18. Two plays later USC led 21-7.
“We were trying to get the flow going one way and get the backer on the other side fill in and make the tackle,” explained defensive end Travis Long, who finished with five tackles. “But we just missed tackles. So they were able to break some big runs like that.”
The lead should have been more because Reid Forrest’s next punt was blocked, giving USC the ball at the Cougar 10. But freshman safety Deone Bucannon, who replaced ineffective starter Chima Nwachukwu on that series, came up with the first of two WSU interceptions, juggling but catching Barkley’s poor throw at the 1.
The next USC drive ended the same way, with this pick by Hoffman-Ellis. A six-play drive ended with Tuel finding Karstetter on a fade in the left-corner of the end zone and, after Nico Grasu’s point after was deflected by the big hand of Tyrone Smith, WSU trailed 21-13.
For the third consecutive – and final – time, USC turned over the ball, with C.J. Mizell wrestling a fumble away from Allen Bradford. But Robey ran under Tuel’s long throw aimed for Daniel Blackledge to break back, and the Trojans took advantage.
A 13-play, 62-yard drive ensued over the next 6 minutes, breaking the Cougars’ back. When Marc Tyler scored from the 2, it was 28-13. There was another Tuel interception and a Joe Houston missed field goal in the last 1:50 of the half, but USC had survived the Cougars’ best shots.
“We could have been winning this game at half and we didn’t get that accomplished,” Sturdy said. “We could have played better in the first half, much better. We left some things out there.”
The Trojans responded after intermission with three consecutive long scoring drives (93, 98 and 64 yards), ensuring their eighth straight win over WSU – and the Cougars’ 10th consecutive Pac-10 loss.
“It is tough,” said guard B.J. Guerra said of the continual defeats. “It’s always hard on everybody when you start conference and you expect a lot out of your team and yourself and it doesn’t happen, it’s hard.
“But I feel this team this year, the way we’ve changed as people and as a team, I think we’re going to take this loss and allow it to add fuel to our fire.”