BRADEN JOHNSON | Evergreen columnist
Players and personnel can downplay it or revert to coach speak, but there’s no denying the significance of Friday night’s football game.
You could hear it in redshirt senior running back Jamal Morrow’s voice at Monday’s news conference.
“When you grow up, you live to play games like this,” he said. “Now to be a part of a situation like this, last time was probably the Apple Cup, and that didn’t work out. We’re really excited to have another opportunity to make this happen.”
No. 5 USC (4-0, 2-0) visits Pullman to take on the highest-ranked WSU (4-0, 1-0) football team in 14 years. Both teams enter undefeated and the Cougars are worlds ahead of where they were the last time these squads met.
As a refresher, a 44-17 blowout in favor of the Trojans on Nov. 1, 2014, sent WSU spiraling toward a 3-9 finish.
Earning a bowl bid then was the ultimate program-wide goal. Now, it’s a baseline expectation.
Since his insertion into the starting quarterback role, redshirt senior quarterback Luke Falk has guided the Cougars to 21 wins. It all started with Connor Halliday’s career-ending leg injury on that cold and rainy loss to the Trojans.
“It happened very suddenly, and then as he settled in, I thought he played real well,” Head Coach Mike Leach said of Falk’s debut. “Of course, he went on to play more and more from there. That was kind of his starting point, really.”
One can argue that game — yet another blowout loss in the first three years of Leach’s tenure — was the starting point in the Cougars’ climb back to relevancy. Morrow himself said the entirety of the program has become stronger from that experience.
A national audience is tuning into a game held in a town with an estimated population of 33,282 people Friday. Knock off a top-five team and traditional powerhouse in front of a sold-out crowd, and WSU might spawn the birth of a long-term culture shift for the program.
More than 40 Californians dot the Cougar depth chart, many of whom were disregarded out of high school by their hometown team in red and yellow.
“It’s exciting for them, because they’re from that area and that’s the team they grew up watching,” said redshirt senior linebacker Isaac Dotson. “A lot of the guys on this team were overlooked and play with a chip on their shoulder in that sense.”
WSU enters the contest as a betting underdog, but it’s not as though David is taking on Goliath, here.
USC’s redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold, a potential top-10 NFL draft pick, has been erratic through four games. He’s tossed seven interceptions against nine touchdowns. The Trojans also have to make a pilgrimage to the Palouse on the heels of a tougher-than-expected road game against California six days prior.
A host of storylines are at play, and WSU has even more to potentially gain. You wouldn’t know it judging from the mood around the program, however.
“The thing is, we go out there and there’s nothing being held back,” Leach said of playing in a game of this magnitude. “It’s not like there’s some holdback or we have some special package or we’re digging deeper in the closet. If you’re ever going to improve, you better be on full steam all the time.”
But it almost appears as a facade, in a sense. Players and coaches are preaching the “one game at a time” mantra, though everyone knows what’s on the line.
There’s no harm in acknowledging the high stakes of this week-five showdown. Tuning out the outside noise, as players are harnessing the emotions of playing in a game of this hype while understanding the importance.
“We’re doing a real good job this year of focusing on ourselves and cutting out the outside noise,” said redshirt senior offensive lineman Cole Madison.
That remains to be seen. Madison is one of countless seniors on the WSU roster who got his first taste of what it takes to knock off a program at the caliber of USC three years ago. If both he and the entirety of the team are following Leach’s message, there is no doubt Friday’s game will be competitive.
Leach said it’s hard to say how well players are doing at managing their emotions, and that no one around the program is thinking about last season’s 45-17 loss to No. 5 University of Washington at Martin Stadium.