The follow story is the third chapter of the Relive The Roses series written in 2007 to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the Washington State Cougars' historic 1998 Rose Bowl run.
The Cougars travel to USC for the second game of the 2013 season, Sept. 7. In 1997, WSU also played at USC for its second game of the season. The Cougars had not won at USC since 1957, until that September afternoon 40 years later.
By Jason Krump
After the stirring win over UCLA, only the 12th ever against the Bruins, the Cougars had a bye week to enjoy the victory, and look ahead… ahead to a pair of opponents for their next game: the USC Trojans and the ghosts of history at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
The date of Oct. 26, 1957 was a significant one for the Washington State football program.
On that day, the Cougars defeated USC, 13-12, at the Coliseum. Washington State received plenty of assistance from the Trojans in its narrow win. USC had two missed extra points (one with less than two minutes remaining), a missed field goal (with less than a minute remaining), and six turnovers, all fumbles lost.
It was the first win by the Cougars at USC since 1934, and only the fourth win against the school in the series.
As the 1997 season began, the fifth win against USC had yet to occur.
In addition, the other rarity of the 1997 season’s beginning, in fact it was unprecedented, was that Washington State opened its season against UCLA and USC. Never had the Cougars defeated UCLA and USC in the same season, let alone play the Los Angeles schools in their first two games.
“To open up that schedule was a little bit daunting if you look at our previous history against those teams,” Wide Receivers Coach Mike Levenseller said.
As the 3:30 p.m. kickoff time of the WSU-USC game approached, UCLA was in the process of trouncing No. 11 Texas at Austin, 66-3.
“We really didn’t know what kind of victory that was until we were at USC and they announced the score of the Texas-UCLA game,” Ryan Leaf said of the win against the Bruins. “We knew what kind of football team they were.”
After USC, the Cougars would have a clearer vision of the type of team they were, and what was possible.
On the Saturday of the Cougars’ bye week, many members of the team gathered at the home of linebacker Kenny Moore to watch the 23rd ranked Trojans host Florida State in a primetime game.
The Trojans lost 14-7, but despite the defeat, USC remained ranked at 23 and was a favorite to extend WSU’s drought at USC for one more season.
“We were worried, excited, everything, before that USC game,” Shawn McWashington said.
The Cougars began the game intent on stopping the streak.
A 5-yard pass from Leaf to McWashington gave the Cougars a 7-0 first quarter lead, which was soon extended to 14-0 after a Michael Black 16-yard touchdown run just over a minute into the second quarter.
Leading 14-6, the Cougars capped the first half with another Leaf touchdown pass, this time to tight end Love Jefferson with 50 seconds remaining, to give WSU a 21-6 advantage at the half.
The 15-point lead was reflected in the first-half statistics. The Cougars amassed 278 total yards to USC’s 137 yards. Leaf was 13-of-21 for 224 yards and two touchdowns
WSU was halfway to erasing history, and making its own in the process, but it took only seconds for the ghosts of the Coliseum to begin their comeback.
USC’s R.J. Soward took Rian Lindell’s second-half kickoff at his own five and proceeded to race 95 yards into the WSU endzone. Just like that, the Cougars’ double-digit lead was trimmed to eight, and a one possession game.
Thus began a forgettable third quarter for WSU. The Cougars accumulated 12 total yards, including negative 11 rushing. Leaf was sacked three times and Black, who had rushed for 55 yards in the first half, rushed for minus one yard in the third period.
“I remember they started getting after us on defense quite a bit,” offensive tackle Ryan McShane said. “It felt like we were doing what we wanted in the first half, but we had quite a few three and outs and we were on our heels not knowing what to expect.”
But the Cougars still held the lead, 21-13, entering the final period; however, even that positive was erased when running back LaValle Woods connected for a 15-yard touchdown pass to receiver Mike Bastianelli. The Trojans converted the two-point try and for the first time in the game, the Cougars did not have the lead.
Nor did they have any momentum.
After multiple trading of possessions, the Cougars found themselves with the ball at their own 20 with 5:42 remaining. The drive started inauspiciously when Leaf recovered his own fumble on the first play. After an incompletion, Leaf hit Kevin McKenzie for a 31-yard gain to the Cougars’ 49-yard line.
The 31-yard gain served as a prelude for what was to come on the next play.
Leaf dropped back and threw a pass to McKenzie, who was running a seam route. Leaf’s throw was slightly behind McKenzie, but he reached back with his right hand to snare the pass. With the ball secure, he began running, but on his heels was USC safety Antuan Simmons.
Just when it looked like that Simmons would make the tackle, he was flat on his back, courtesy of a devastating block from McWashington allowing McKenzie an unimpeded path to the end zone.
“McWashington is the smartest football player I ever coached,” Levenseller said. “He had phenomenal vision. He saw that play, knew what was happening, and rather than stop or just turn around and block the guy that was covering him, he saw what he could do if he could get there. So he came flying. He didn’t hesitate one iota.”
“It was one of those things where preparation met opportunity,” McWashington said of the block. “It just happened at the perfect time. It’s something that Coach Levy (Levenseller) always prepared us for. Blocking was always big in the program, and it just happened at the right time.”
The touchdown put the Cougars up 28-21. The Trojans had the ball two more times, but went four plays and out at each instance, although it wasn’t without moments of trepidation for WSU.
“Late in the game, they were throwing bombs and I can remember just hanging on,” said Bill Doba, defensive coordinator and linebackers’ coach of the 1997 team.
At the same time the win erased past misery for the program, it held a great deal of importance to the team in the present.
“That game made everyone feel like we are for real and it was a confidence builder,” Head Coach Mike Price said. “It was a huge, exciting victory. It said to us, ‘You know, we can play.’”
“After winning that game, that’s when we knew we had a real shot,” McWashington said. “When you talk about games that shape a program that was as big a win as that program ever had.”
So big, that the Coliseum, which was once a place of gloom for the Cougars, suddenly was transformed to a venue to savor the moment in.
“Afterward, I said to Judy (wife), ‘Let’s take a walk down in the tunnel.’” Doba said. “The feeling of walking out on the field, just for the moment, and seeing their band coming up along with the horse and I thought, ‘This may never happen again.’ It was a great, great feeling. We just walked out and stood on the field.”
It would not be the last time that Doba, and the team, would stand on the Coliseum field in 1997.
The 1997 Pac-10 Champion football team is a member of the 2013 WSU Athletics Hall of Fame Class. The 1997 team, along with two other teams and eight individuals, will be inducted Sept. 13-14. For more information and to attend the event click HERE.