LOS ANGELES — The lobby emptied shortly after 1 a.m. Sunday at the Renaissance Hotel, and a handful of men wearing Washington State gear shuffled toward the elevator with joyful exhaustion.
“Man,” one of them said, “winning sure is a lot more fun than losing.”
There has been much of the latter and little of the former for the Cougars during the past five years. But Saturday night’s 10-7 victory over No. 25 USC might augur well for the future, considering how WSU’s schedule unfolds in the coming weeks.
On Saturday, the Cougars will host Southern Utah of the Big Sky Conference. Southern Utah beat Sun Belt Conference foe South Alabama in its season opener and pasted NCAA Division II Fort Lewis, 49-0, this past weekend. The Cougars should be heavily favored.
So it will be the next week, when Idaho (0-2) visits Martin Stadium, when the Cougars should have a fine opportunity to improve to 3-1. That would set up an interesting game against Stanford at CenturyLink Field on Sept. 28, though WSU has two games to win before any talk of trying to shock the Cardinal.
“It’s a start. That’s what we’re taking it as,” left tackle Gunnar Eklund said after Saturday night’s win. “It starts right now for Washington State University. We’re just going to keep getting better.”
In many ways, they already have. Coach Mike Leach spent much of last season lamenting WSU’s woe-is-us attitude, often criticizing his team for either failing to maintain focus after pulling into the lead or for hanging their heads after falling behind.
There hasn’t been any of that through WSU’s first two games.
The 31-24 loss at Auburn in the opener was frustrating, but the Cougars were adamant afterward that they could have — no, should have — won.
And Leach said it was obvious that even as they struggled through a game against USC that wasn’t exactly aesthetically pleasing, the Cougars believed they would be the ones celebrating when it was over.
“I really believe the second half coming out of the locker room, we really believed we were going to win, and that seemed to accelerate there in the fourth quarter,” Leach said. “Nothing had really happened, but I do think our composure and confidence rose in the fourth quarter.”
The Cougars also made a step toward developing a defensive identity.
USC found some success running the ball, with redshirt sophomore Tre Madden running 32 times for 151 yards. But if that was going to be the Trojans’ sole offensive source — and it was — the Cougars had to like their chances.
Leach described it as a battle of defensive lines, though each was trying to accomplish a different goal.
USC used its size and speed up front to bother Connor Halliday and force him into four sacks and three turnovers, part of what prevented the Cougars’ offense from taking some of the ugliness out of this one.
And the Cougars’ defensive line needed only to prevent the big run. Trojans quarterbacks Cody Kessler and Max Wittek proved so incompetent against WSU’s secondary that their longest completion was for 8 yards — unless you count WSU cornerback Damante Horton’s 70-yard interception return for a touchdown.
“The biggest thing is, it’s such a team win,” said Halliday, whose team knocked USC out of the Associated Press Top 25 poll. “Last week against Auburn, we played real well, but it was in spurts. The offense would play well, then the defense would let up a big play. I throw a pick, then the defense would get a stop. It was never together. For the defense to play the way they did tonight was absolutely amazing.”