For pretty much all of this season, I've been waiting for the other shoe to drop. I mean, when you combine what has happened the last two years with the fact that we are, after all, Cougs ... well, I'm sure most of you understand exactly where I'm coming from.
As we've repeated ad nauseaum for the past three months, the goal coming into this season was improvement. And it can hardly be argued that this team is improved over where it was at this point last year. Don't believe me? Believe the guys who have coached against the Cougs. Cougfan.com built an entire story around Oregon coach Chip Kelly's opinion of the rebuilding job (it's premium, but it's positive). And Mike Stoops said some things on Saturday that we all can agree are not the sorts of things you generally hear out of Mike Stoops:
"Washington State is better all the way through. Their souls are just deeper. They compete better. It seems to me they are turning a corner and shrinking the field. We started (our) process six years ago and, with the schedule they play, it's hard, but they compete."
I know you have to take the things coaches say with a little bit of a grain of salt, since they're all in that so-called fraternity where they more or less want each other to do well so that they all can stay gainfully employed. (Although, not always.) But what they're saying backs up what we've seen via the eyeball test on Saturdays: WSU is tougher and more athletic, and the Cougs are competing for longer against some dang stiff competition.
Beyond that, one of the things that has absolutely impressed me the most about this team is that it has gotten better every week. Most young teams have pretty extreme ups and downs, usually from game to game. But when you look at each of the Cougs' games, you can make a compelling case that it was an improvement over the previous week's performance.
Sure, Oklahoma State was far worse than any of us expected. But Montana State -- no matter how you felt about how the Cougs got there -- was better, if only marginally. SMU? Better than that. Maybe you could complain about USC, but I'd argue that the strides made by the offense was a net positive. UCLA was clearly better than that, and hanging with the No. 3 (now No. 1) team in the country into the fourth quarter was a great success. Even this past game, with all the offensive mistakes and struggles, represented a significant step forward on defense.
It's been pretty amazing, as this sort of thing doesn't happen with teams real often -- especially young ones. Yet I fear that it's not likely to continue. At least this week.
I see a number of troubling signs as the Cougs prepare to roll into Palo Alto for a matchup with No. 12 Stanford.
This will be the third consecutive matchup for WSU against teams currently ranked in the top 15. That they've been able to play Oregon and Arizona so tough -- not perfect, but tough -- is a testament to the preparation of the players and the coaching staff. But it's rare that any team can stay up for every game of a three-game gauntlet such as this, and with the first two coming at home, one has to wonder if this is the one where the Cougs lose a little focus and it truly blows up on them.
It won't help that WSU won't be coming into the game with a full complement of players. Starting left tackle David Gonzales is done for the year. Starting right tackle Micah Hannam might or might not be back from a concussion. Hannam isn't the greatest tackle -- a time share with a true freshman should lead you to that conclusion fairly easily -- but for a team that's shown increasing difficulty keeping Jeff Tuel from getting killed, Hannam is needed.
On defense, C.J. Mizell is supposed to be back, but who knows. Promising young corner Damante Horton is out until perhaps the Apple Cup. Alex Hoffman-Ellis and Mike Ledgerwood are still banged up. (No matter what you think of them, you can hardly argue we need linebacker depth.) Heck, even the greatest punter ever to walk the face of the earth flashed his mortality this past weekend.
I might not consider this as big of a deal if WSU wasn't getting ready to play perhaps the most physically punishing team in the conference. These young Cougs will get punched in the mouth as they haven't all season long. Are they ready for it? Will they bow their backs and hit back, as hey have the last two weeks? Or will they finally wilt against a much more physically mature team? The only two teams WSU has played that resemble Stanford were USC and Oklahoma State.
So ... yeah.
Look, I want to believe that these guys can keep moving forward. But I can't help but wonder if we're not just asking for too much for these guys to be competitive three consecutive weeks against three very good teams -- especially when you consider these additional circumstances.
If this team can somehow figure out a way to hang with the Cardinal? Well, let's just say I won't be shocked, because this team has continually surprised me this year. But I'll be incredibly impressed.
I'm just bracing myself for the worst.