Sept. 21, 2007
By Jason Krump
With the win over USC, the Cougars achieved several "firsts" for the program.
In addition to securing the first win at USC in 40 years, the victory meant that WSU defeated both UCLA and USC in the same season for the first time in program history.
And as important as the 2-0 beginning to the Cougars' season was to their Pac-10 title hopes, the significance of the Cougars' start to the 1997 campaign began to make ripples nationally.
The day after the USC victory, the Cougars were ranked No. 19 in the Associated Press Poll and 20th in the USA Today/CNN Coaches Poll. In another first, it was WSU's first ranking since three years earlier, when the "Palouse Posse" led the Cougars to an Alamo Bowl Championship in 1994.
The Cougars took their new found ranking on the road for their first non-conference opponent of the season, a 0-2 Illinois team out of the Big Ten Conference. The travel to Illinois would be the longest of the year for the Cougars.
Playing Illinois in the past had proved to be a good omen for WSU. Each of the last two wins over the Fighting Illini came during bowl seasons. In 1988, WSU opened the season by dispatching Illinois 44-7 for the first of nine wins in its Aloha Bowl championship season. In the aforementioned 1994 Alamo Bowl season, the Cougars edged Illinois 10-9, in, once again, their season opener.
The game was to be televised live on ESPN2, the four-year old sister station of ESPN. To accommodate the network, gametime was moved to 11:30 a.m. Central, 9:30 a.m. Pacific.
The early start time didn't seem to affect WSU negatively at the outset, as the Cougars began the game with a jolt better than a strong cup of coffee could produce.
On their first offensive play of the game, the Ryan Leaf-Kevin McKenzie duo, which proved so effective at USC, combined once again to put points on the board for WSU.
With the ball at their own 20, Leaf, who entered the game leading the nation in total offense at 354.5 yards a game, connected with McKenzie across the middle at the Cougars' 42. McKenzie was celebrating his 22nd birthday and he presented himself the gift of six points by running untouched into the end zone. The score gave WSU a 7-0 lead just 16 seconds into the game.
"The fact that we scored on the very first play, we figured it was going to be a rout," offensive tackle Jason McEndoo remembers. "They weren't thinking that way obviously."
"Sometimes when you score as easily as we did on the first play, the players think this is going to be a breeze, and there is a natural let down," Head Coach Mike Price said after the game. "That is common with most teams and athletes. I think we went through that let down."
The game's dynamic beginning quickly evaporated into a sluggish affair for WSU.
"We came out very flat and played a horrible game but ended up winning. To me, that showed me that we had enough talent to pull off games that in the past we wouldn't have."
-Ryan McShane on the win at Illinois
The Cougars' next possession once again started at their own 20. This time, however, WSU was whistled for two illegal procedure penalties before Leaf was intercepted, setting up the tying touchdown for Illinois.
The series served as a precursor for WSU's struggles throughout the game.
The Cougars went into the half tied at seven, and were fortunate not to be trailing. During the opening 30 minutes, WSU was called for 10 penalties, seven in the first quarter alone, and turned the ball over three times, including two interceptions by Leaf.
As the second half began, it didn't take long for WSU to find itself down when Robert Holcombe ran 48 yards for a touchdown to put Illinois up 14-7 less than a minute and a half into the third quarter. It was the first time WSU trailed since the second quarter of UCLA.
But Leaf -- who was recovering from a hyperextended knee against USC, which followed the ankle sprain versus UCLA -- hit Chris Jackson from five yards to complete a nine-play drive and tie the game at 14 in the latter stages of the third quarter.
That is where the game stood heading into the fourth quarter. While Leaf had thrown for 173 yards up to this point of the game, it was Michael Black who exerted his will, especially in the third quarter. Through three periods, Black rushed for 112 yards, 67 of that total coming in the third quarter.
On the final play of the quarter, Black sliced through the Illini defense 44 yards to the Illinois' 21-yard line. While Black's long run ended the quarter, backup DeJuan Gilmore scampered the remaining 21 yards on the first play of the fourth quarter to put WSU back in front 21-14.
Duane Stewart recovered a fumble on Illinois' next possession, and WSU took advantage of the turnover when Leaf hit Nian Taylor from 30 yards out. Suddenly, the Cougars were up 28-14, which soon became 35-14 when Leaf threw another 30-yard touchdown strike, this time to McWashington, to cap a 21-point fourth quarter for WSU. In the end the Cougars prevailed, and escaped, with a 35-22 win.
"We were flat," Bill Doba said. "We kicked it off in the morning our time and we struggled like crazy. We battled for quite a while before we got that game in hand."
For the game, WSU had 18 penalties, three interceptions, and one loss fumble, but, despite the mistakes, the Cougars improved to 3-0 and took away a lesson that would serve them well later in the season.
"We came out very flat and played a horrible game but ended up winning," offensive tackle Ryan McShane said. "To me, that showed me that we had enough talent to pull off games that in the past we wouldn't have. It was an eye opener too that maybe there is something there that, as long as we stayed focused, it could be a fun ride."
"It showed that we can come back and get the job done," McEndoo said. "That game was good early on because it brought us back down to earth a little bit."
The Illinois win improved WSU's ranking to 14th in the Coaches' poll and No. 15 in the AP poll. The Cougars, along with Oregon and California, remained the only undefeated teams in the Pac-10.
Following Illinois, another non-conference opponent was next up for the Cougars, Boise State. For the first time in nearly a month, WSU returned home to Martin Stadium. The stadium would become a familiar venue for the team as five of the Cougars' remaining eight games would be at their home confines.
A primary pregame storyline wasn't the Cougars' ranking, or returning home, or the undefeated record.
It was a kicker, and the opposing one at that.
Boise State kicker Todd Belcastro vowed to extract revenge on Price for not recruiting him out of Mead High School in 1995.
Belcastro was quoted in the Idaho Statesman saying, "I hate the Cougars. I really do. I'm going to wear my Washington hat on the sideline Saturday after we win. I'm going to sign a football, put the score on it, and hand it to Price."
"In the warm-up, our student body, they were just hooting and hollering," Doba remembers of the pregame atmosphere at the stadium. "He (Belcastro) tried the first one and hit a squib. That poor kid, I don't know how he survived."
"They had the kicker talking smack that week," McEndoo remembers. "I think the guy got on the field one time."
McEndoo was correct. Belcastro was on the field, for the opening kickoff.
"No one likes a kicker," McShane said. "I know Coach Price didn't want him to score at all. So we definitely got after him on that game."
It was the Cougars' kicker, Rian Lindell, who made the headlines by booting a 57-yard field goal, the fourth longest in school history, in the second quarter.
WSU accumulated 565 total yards and 30 first downs in its 58-0 trouncing of the Broncos. Conversely, the Cougar defense held the Broncos to 115 yards total offense and seven first downs.
The Cougars, now 4-0, registered their first shutout since the Palouse Posse shut out UCLA, 21-0, in 1994.
As impressive as the shutout was, the defense would come up even larger at a hostile environment a week later.
Relive the Roses
- Chapter 1: Motivation
- Chapter 2: Fourth and Roses to Go
- Chapter 3: The Catch. The Block. Vanquishing History.
- Chapter 4: The Nation Begins to Take Notice
- Chapter 5: Fabulous!
- Chapter 6: Getting Defensive
- Chapter 7: 63 and 6-0
- Chapter 8: In Elite Company
- Chapter 9: Fumble, Then a Recovery
- Chapter 10: Stepping Up to the Challenge
- Chapter 11: Memories of a Memorable Man
- Chapter 12: Confidence
- Chapter 13: A Storybook Championship
- Chapter 14: Leading up to New Year's Day
- Chapter 15: A Block that Lent a Great Assist
- Chapter 16: A Game 67 Years in the Making
- Chapter 17: Playing No. 1 to a Deadlock
- Chapter 18: To the Final Snap