Their sanctuary turned out to be a sliver of a section at the tunnel end of the Coliseum about 7:15 Saturday night. There the fanatic met the fantastic. The small contingent of fans and the even smaller contingent of band joined in celebration with Ryan Leaf, the quarterback who had passed for 355 yards, and Kevin McKenzie, the little running back who starred on the decisive drive, and the anchors of a defensive line that held USC to 31 yards rushing, which, come to think of it, may not turn out to be that big of a deal after all considering the way things are going for the Trojans.
Washington State’s college football team, the first to acknowledge it has never been confused as Washington state’s college football team, came over to that corner to be with the Cougar faithful in attendance. They hugged and they high-fived and they waved and they sang the fight song. They even cried.
“I wasn’t trying to,” said Dorian Boose, the 6-foot-6 defensive end who was literally reduced to tears. “I was trying to hold them in.”
Another day maybe. On this one, they had become the first Washington State squad to beat USC since 1986, the first to win at the Coliseum since 1957, and the first to knock off USC and UCLA in the same season. The first ever. So they could be excused for the emotions.
Like when defensive tackle Leon Bender turned toward the USC fans sitting not far behind the Cougar bench and used his right hand to cup his right ear, punctuated with a glare. Even though 2 minutes 33 seconds remained and the Trojans still had chances.
“I was trying to find out why they were so quiet,” he explained later. “I was trying to find out why they weren’t playing their theme song.”
Like when the Washington State band blared “California, Here I Come” as the final seconds ticked off the Cougars’ 28-21 victory, which comes two weeks after the home win over UCLA. Even though they’re actually going home for good, with Stanford and Cal both playing in Pullman.
And like when USC was down to its final chance, on its 32 with 29 seconds remaining, and Leaf, the current quarterback, and sophomore Steve Birnbaum, the future, each down on one knee, leaning against each other, too worried to watch the fourth-and-18 play. When John Fox’s pass to Mike Bastianelli fell incomplete, Leaf and Birnbaum sprung to their feet in celebration.
“Just another win, you know,” Washington State Coach Mike Price said. “It happens once or twice every hundred years.”
He was exaggerating, of course. It happens once or twice every 50 years.
It almost happened last year, a win over the Trojans, even if it would have had to come at Martin Stadium and not in Loss Angeles. The Cougars had the lead at halftime, then had the lead late. USC mounted an 83-yard drive for the winning score with 2:05 to play and turned back a final Washington State bid, or at least survived it when Leaf fumbled on the Trojan 11.
The 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by R. Jay Soward that started the second half Saturday, started USC on its comeback from a 21-6 deficit that would become a 21-21 tie early in the fourth quarter, was a flashback the Cougars could have done without. But consider what they did with the memory.
They didn’t just start on their 28 with 5:42 left, they started the drive with Leaf fumbling, only to recover the ball himself, then throwing incomplete, making it second-and-12. From there, Leaf hit McKenzie over the middle for a 31-yard gain. The next play, the same connection. Leaf to McKenzie, by way of Long Beach Wilson High and Long Beach City College and one of several locals on the roster, for 51 yards and the winning touchdown with 4:18 remaining.
There went Trojan dominance.
There went Loss Angeles.
“I’m going to go home, talk to my daughter and tell her that her daddy is a legend and that everyone on this team is a legend,” Bender said. “That’s how it’ll go down.”
His daughter’s name, by the way, is Imani. It has special meaning in Swahili.