The scope of history doesn’t mean much when you’re 20 years old.
At that age, history is last year or last game, which is why USC’s dominance of Washington State means a lot more to those who will watch the game at the Coliseum today than to those who will play it.
Washington State hasn’t won in Los Angeles since 1957--forget the players; USC’s offensive and defensive coordinators weren’t even born then--and hasn’t beaten USC anywhere since 1986.
What’s at stake for the Trojans today isn’t some streak but the tone of their entire season.
Win today, and they’re looking at a chance to go on a roll and start climbing in the polls. Lose today, and all the good feelings stirred by a close loss to Florida State in the opener would evaporate in an instant.
Instead of a 23rd-ranked team in search of a running game, they’d be an unranked team in search of its first win, without another prospect until a Sept. 27 game at California after an open date next week.
USC is favored by a touchdown, but the players saw Washington State beat UCLA, and they remember a close call in Pullman last season when the Cougars reached the USC 11-yard line with 39 seconds left before Lawrence Larry stripped quarterback Ryan Leaf of the ball and USC recovered, preserving a 29-24 victory.
“We talked about last year’s game,” USC center Jonathan Himebauch said. “But streaks are things of the past. You can’t look at the old SC and say we’re going to kill ‘em. That streak belongs to the old SC and to history. We have to come to play this game.”
Leaf, a dangerous passer who threw for 381 yards in the 37-34 victory over UCLA, was reluctant to talk about last year’s USC game, when three of his passes were intercepted before he fumbled with the game on the line.
“You put away the past and don’t recall bad experiences,” he said. “You can build on it and learn what you could have done differently. I’m not looking back hoping to have the same shot on the 11-yard line again. I’d rather be up by 30, so it doesn’t matter.”
And as for all that history?
“I don’t think too many players know Coach [Mike] Price has never beaten USC,” he said. “I’m probably one of the only ones because I’m big into statistics. . . . What they did two years ago on defense or offense doesn’t concern our players. They’re just worried about whether [Delon] Washington is going to run right or left or Billy Miller is going to run post or corner.”
Whether Washington, USC’s senior tailback, will run very far in any direction is one of the game’s big questions.
After gaining 16 yards in 18 carries against the Seminoles, he will have to do considerably better or he’ll probably be overtaken by freshman Malaefou MacKenzie or sophomore Petros Papadakis, who are supposed to get chances to prove themselves today.
They got a few extra opportunities in practice this week when Washington missed a day because of an arthritic knee, the latest injury to join his preseason Achilles’ tendon problem.
What else hurts?
“My feelings,” Washington said. “I’m very disappointed [to face a challenge from the backups]. It’s out of my control. The only thing I can do is accept the role they give me.”
Washington--whose counterpart on the Cougars, Michael Black, opened the season with a 102-yard performance against UCLA--had one of his best games of last season against Washington State, rushing for 99 yards and scoring the go-ahead touchdown with two minutes left.
But the Cougars are typically good against the run--only 11 running backs in the last five years have managed 100-yard games against them. (UCLA’s Skip Hicks has done it twice.)
Still, high-scoring, seesawing games are typical for the Cougars, who play a wide-open game and are feeling good about themselves after beating UCLA.
“It’s a confidence-builder,” Leaf said. “But it was one game, and Pullman is a tough place to play. When we go into the Coliseum, we have to execute. Late in the game against UCLA, we didn’t score inside the 30. If we pass up those opportunities, we won’t win this game. We have to have a flawless game to win this game.”
USC needs more of the big-play defense it showed against Florida State.
“You can’t be happy just that we were close,” linebacker Chris Claiborne said. “That’s for other people. We expected to win that game and we lost that game. This game is very big. Very big. This is the start of the [Pacific 10] Conference.”
With the conference schedule barely under way, Washington State is tied for first at the moment with Oregon--at 1-0.
“It’s a conference game, and I think Washington State is what you see: They can score and have that ability to put the ball up,” USC Coach John Robinson said. “When you’re playing and a guy’s running up field and you throw the ball, there’s a chance he’s going to catch it.
“On those days when those kinds of circumstances happen, there’s a chance that a number of touchdowns can be scored. We have respect for them and what they do. We expect it to be a difficult game.”