It took four games, the first three of which they won, but the Washington State Cougars finally made the television big time.
All it took was a game at USC. On a Friday night.
It was the Trojans, not surprisingly, who played the starring role on the ESPN broadcast, with WSU filling the role of the supporting cast.
And, as everyone knows, you can’t upstage Hollywood’s stars. And, with a dramatic late field-goal block, USC survived with a 39-36 win in the Coliseum.
What they saw …
It would make sense USC’s tough start – the Trojans came in 1-2 – would be the main topic of discussion, especially early on.
And Dave Pasch, doing the play-by-play, paired with analyst Greg McElroy to do just that, mentioning many times the dissatisfaction expressed by Trojan fans this week on social media.
But as the game wore on, and Washington State built a lead, the tenor of the broadcast changed. Slightly.
Gardner Minshew, who led the Cougars on four consecutive long touchdown drives midway through the game, became the man of the moment, with McElroy praising Minshew often, including his courage on a touchdown pass to Easop Winston.
When Gardner made a fourth-quarter play with his feet and his arm, McElroy exclaimed, “Gardner continues to impress.”
He then pointed out how Minshew found Winston, who wears No. 8, for the touchdown that gave the Cougars a 36-31 lead. The cameras caught Leach saying “think about 8” to Minshew from the sidelines.
There was also plenty of James Williams’ backstory.
That seemed to be the exception, however, as viewers learned everything they could want to know about JT Daniels, the Trojans’ freshman quarterback, who is 18 years old. If you didn’t know before the game, you certainly did afterward. And you knew he was from Mater Dei High and that his high school teammate was wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown. And more. You heard it over and over.
You also heard a couple of strange comments made about Daniels. In the pregame, McElroy used the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde cliché to describe Daniel’s play. That’s all well and good, except he described a perfect throw from Daniels as a Dr. Jekyll moment.
Uh, that’s not how that works. The doctor was the bad one.
Not to be outdone, at halftime, studio analyst Joey Galloway described Minshew’s 28-yard touchdown pass to Winston as “a perfect play call.”
Uh, that’s not how that works. Under Mike Leach’s system, it wasn’t the play call as much as it was Minshew’s read of the free safety blitz.
What we saw …
At least McElroy, the former Alabama quarterback, isn’t afraid to call foul, especially when one isn’t called.
Jay Edwards’ officiating crew – Edwards was working Conference USA games this time last year and struggled with numbers and team names (calling the Cougars “Washington” at one point) – had a few of those, including a missed targeting call on Porter Gustin – he missed the first half due to a targeting call last week – on the Cougars final drive that could have tipped the game’s balance.
During the Cougars’ first possession, Minshew tried to connect with Tay Martin on a go route but couldn’t. There was a reason.
“Look at him grab the jersey,” McElroy said of Iman Marshall’s hold showing in the replay. “That’s a hold, I mean that’s holding. That’s just a bad call.”
On the last USC drive before half, there were two plays reviewed, both of which stood as called. Pasch, McElroy and sideline reporter Tom Luginbill, whose dad was a longtime college coach, all agreed neither call could be overturned, with Pasch explaining in depth the replay standard on the last-second near-touchdown for the Trojans.
Nothing illustrated the USC-centric nature of the broadcast more than two possessions midway through the third quarter.
For the first time in five drives, Washington State misfired on offense and had to punt. The USC offense took the field with a chance to take the lead, as WSU led 30-24.
But in three plays, the Trojans only picked up a yard and had to punt.
“That was just a really poor series by this USC offense,” McElroy said.
When Washington State went three and out after the punt, McElroy pointed out, “That’s a big series by the USC defense.”
It’s too bad, too, as WSU had some out-of-character incidents – a different, unsuccessful, scheme on kickoff coverage, Kyle Sweet being penalized for something he’s done more than once this season, the big play and a couple of delay of game calls biting the defense, and the disappearance of Tay Martin on offense – that would have been nice to have explained to viewers possibly watching the Cougars for the first time.
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