The benefits of conference play: It all but erases the games that preceded it. No team can possibly be more thankful for this than the Washington State Cougars.
It’s a strange habit Wazzu has developed. Last year featured much the same early-season malaise, marked by an opening-week loss to an FCS team (Portland State) before barely surviving against Rutgers and Wyoming. The Cougars then mended their ways, finishing 9-4 as the Hyundai Sun Bowl champions, winners over Miami.
This season began even worse, with back-to-back losses to another FCS team (Eastern Washington) and Boise State.
Now they’re 4-2, in complete control of their own destiny, taking the most bizarre path to get there.
Washington State has now beaten Oregon, Stanford and UCLA in consecutive weeks, three teams that were thought to be Pac-12 – and playoff – contenders. Its 27-21 victory over the Bruins on Saturday night marked the first time since 2006 and 2007 it has triumphed over the Bruins in back-to-back years.
That fact might catch a lot of analysts and fans off guard, but the manner in which Washington State is winning is the most surprising. Wazzu blew out Oregon and Stanford, showing flashes of a – gasp – rushing attack. Against UCLA, the Cougars scored all 27 points without a single passing touchdown, snapping an FBS-best 41 straight games with a passing score.
“I was proud of our guys for sticking in there and playing tough like they did. Because the conditions and our opponent, you have to be tough,” Washington State coach Mike Leach said. “We could have finished better but we had a lot of awful good stuff in between to make this happen.”
Indeed, Washington State has made a lot of good stuff happen this season, and it’s doing so at the perfect time, in the most perfect way.
For so long in the Leach era, Wazzu has been a one-trick pony, almost a circus act. It was going to throw, throw and throw some more. Forget rushing. Forget defense. Forget special teams. The Cougars were simply going to try and outscore teams, and they were going to outscore them through the air.
Suddenly, however, the Cougars are playing defense, limiting Oregon to 33, mighty Stanford to 16 and UCLA just 21. Suddenly the Cougars are running the ball, leaning on their multi-threat rushing attack to put those points on the board. Six times they ran it in against Oregon. Twice more they found the end zone in a convincing win over Stanford. Make it three more against UCLA.
“Hey, we can do it other ways,” quarterback Luke Falk said.
Yes, yes they can. Heck, the Cougars are even kicking field goals now, something they hadn’t done a single time this season until Saturday night.
“I think we’re a more violent, physical football team right now,” Falk said, adding, “I truly don’t believe we’ve played our best game yet.”
He’s more than likely right. Each week, it seems, Washington State adds something new to the arsenal. The best part? The Cougars now enter the easiest stretch on their schedule, with Arizona State, Oregon State and Arizona coming up, three games in which the Cougars will be favored to win.
It’s still a strange concept, viewing Wazzu as a conference power, but with an offense that is no longer predictable, it’s a wonder how far these Cougars might go.