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Counting them down: The five most anticipated games between Washington State and USC

Kicker Drew Dunning and the Cougars celebrate 2002’s 30-27 thrilling victory over Southern Cal, one of five of the most anticipated WSU-USC matchups over the years. (File / Associated Press)
Kicker Drew Dunning and the Cougars celebrate 2002’s 30-27 thrilling victory over Southern Cal, one of five of the most anticipated WSU-USC matchups over the years. (File / Associated Press)

PULLMAN – Friday’s game between No. 16 Washington State and No. 5 USC is rightfully being billed as one of the most consequential games of the 2017 Pac-12 football season. And it’s been at least 14 years since the Cougars and Trojans have played one another in a game of this magnitude.

But in the 25 years prior to a 2003 game in which both WSU and USC were ranked inside the top 10, the Cougars and Trojans met regularly as nationally prominent programs with plenty on the line – conference titles, Rose Bowls and the rest.

As the buzz grows for Friday’s game in Pullman, we break down the five most anticipated games in this series over the last 50 years – starting of course with 2003.

No. 1: Nov. 3, 2003

WSU coach Bill Doba brought the Pac-10 Conference’s best rushing defense into the Coliseum and the Cougars, making a rare appearance inside the nation’s top 10, hadn’t lost in nearly two months.

But the Trojans were determined to show how much distance there was between No. 3 and No. 6. Even the fortitude of WSU’s front seven couldn’t stymie the freight train that lived in the Trojans backfield: LenDale White. It was White, not Reggie Bush, who made the Cougars pay, rushing 12 times for 149 yards and a touchdown.

“They are nothing special,” Cougars quarterback Matt Kegel said after completing 28 of 47 passes for 291 yards, one interception and one touchdown. “I thought their offense carried their team.”

Doba was more complimentary of Pete Carroll and the Trojans, who also had a future Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Matt Leinart, throw three touchdown passes in the game. USC’s famed stallion, Traveller, galloped around the playing field after each.

“They are going to have to get a new horse,” Doba said. “We about wore him out.”

Score: No. 3 USC 43, No. 6 WSU 16.

Oct. 5, 2002

A few of the most iconic players in the Pac-10 at the time came together for this early-October game in Pullman between No. 17 WSU and No. 18 USC.

The Cougars had Jason Gesser at quarterback and Outland Trophy winner Rien Long at offensive tackle. The Trojans had quarterback Carson Palmer and linebacker Troy Polamalu.

But the morning-after headlines didn’t mention any of them. Drew Dunning, a kicker, got all of the press after winning it overtime with one swing of his right leg.

The header of Sunday’s The Spokesman-Review read: “Dunning Do-Right.”

WSU fans hoisted Dunning in the air and carried him off the field after the kicker’s 35-yarder gave the Cougars their first win over USC in Pullman in 16 years.

“Four students picked me up and carried me off the field,” Dunning said. “They almost dropped me.”

In regulation, the Cougars were surprisingly effective in how they were able to move the ball against the nation’s No. 1 defense. They passed for 315 yards and rushed for 201. It didn’t hurt that Polamalu left the game injured in the first quarter.

“I didn’t think there was any way we were going to get 500 yards of offense on this team,” WSU coach Mike Price said. “If we can beat this team, we’re for real.”

Score: No. 17 WSU 30, No. 18 USC 27 (OT)

Sept. 30, 1989

USC was ranked 11th and WSU 19th, but the pregame buildup paled in comparison to what actually played out between the white lines on a chilly September day in Pullman.

The Cougars were in front 17-10 when Todd Marinovich and USC took over on the shadow of their goal line with just 3 1/2 minutes left in the fourth quarter. Marinovich watched three straight passes fall to the turf, leaving the Trojans with fourth-and-10 from the 9-yard line.

“Trojans will have to kick it out of there,” a television commentator said. “Can’t go for it on fourth down from your own 9. Or can you?”

Marinovich hit Gary Wellman on the right boundary and the Trojans signal-caller endured another fourth-down scare as he and the offense marched 91 yards downfield. Marinovich capped the drive with a 2-yard dump-off to Ricky Ervins for a touchdown.

That made it 17-16 Cougars. The Trojans could have guaranteed no worse than a tie by kicking a PAT, but their signal-caller had plenty of momentum at this point – not to mention confidence.

“I didn’t even think twice about it,” Marinovich told the Los Angeles Times. “Going for the tie, for the Rose Bowl race, it might have been smart. But getting out of there with a tie …”

The Trojans went for two and Marinovich rifled a pass to Wellman in the back of the end zone for the winner.

“My imagination didn’t get that wild,” Marinovich said of the game’s dramatic finish.

He’d later watch his NFL career fizzle because of a drug addiction, but Marinovich will always be recognized as the QB who engineered “The Drive.”

Score: No. 11 USC 18, No. 19 WSU 17

Oct. 31, 1981

An unbeaten season was on the line for coach Jim Walden and the 14th-ranked Cougars, who traveled to No. 4 USC sporting a 7-0-1 record.

But the Trojans were loaded as usual and a senior running back named Marcus Allen came into the game averaging more than 200 yards – and had already ripped off five 200-yard games that season.

Allen ran for 200 against the Cougars … and then he kept running. By the time all was said and done, the USC tailback had rushed for 289 yards on just 44 carries and scored four touchdowns.

“Stars make offensive lines, lines don’t make stars,” Walden was quoted as saying in a New York Times article. “When Marcus cuts, it’s not the line, it’s him. He’s a bona fide great football player. He makes his line. He would be a great running back behind my line, and we’re not as good as theirs.”

Score: No. 4 USC 41, No. 14 WSU 14

Sept. 13, 1997

It was a good year when the Cougars could knock down one of the two Los Angeles schools, but here was a rare chance for them to shake up the Pac-10 hierarchy and upend both in the season. That had never happened for WSU.

WSU had beat the Bruins 37-34 in a dramatic game on the Palouse the week before and would have an opportunity to drop the Trojans to 0-2. They hadn’t started a season with two losses in almost 40 years.

The Cougars stoned the USC rushing attack time after time, holding the Trojans to just 31 yards on the ground, and Ryan Leaf had a productive day throwing the ball, completing 21 of 40 passes for 355 yards and three touchdowns.

“It was one of the most disappointing running performance I’ve been involved with,” USC coach John Robinson said.

A historic game for the Cougars – they beat the Trojans in L.A. for the first time since 1957 – was part of a historic season. WSU, with the eventual second pick of the NFL Draft behind center, won 10 games, shot up to No. 8 in the rankings and lost to No. 1 Michigan in the 1998 Rose Bowl.

Score: WSU 28, No. 23 USC 21

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