I'll start by saying I can't answer the question. The players don't know, the coaches don't know and nobody knows for sure why the Cougs came out and rolled over. I can, however, offer a bit of insight and perspective on the team and where their heads have been at.
After three weeks of playing above their head against ranked teams, I got the feeling there was nothing left by the time they headed to the desert. Is it right or acceptable? Probably not. But it is what it is. They didn't have the killer mentality or ability to get back up when punched in the mouth yet again by another team.
I kept wondering when the other shoe would drop this season. When WSU hung around against Oregon and gave the Ducks their best shot, I was surprised. They did it again against Arizona next week, never allowing the Wildcats to fully take-over the game. Against Stanford, we all expected a let-down. It didn't happen again. I immediately thought "here we go, now it will happen."
Why did I think that? Read on.
The football season is a grind. Sure it's only one game a week, but we've seen plenty of Pac-10 teams look like world-beaters one week and dead teams the next. There's so much involved in the season -- from film study, to practice, to the games themselves -- that it can be too much for 18-21 year old players to handle.
The physical and mental toll of a season is more than we probably realize. Every Monday, a new gameplan is installed. Players are learning more plays, studying the tendencies of the opponent and preparing themselves for Saturday all week. When they aren't on the practice field, they're doing walkthroughs to prepare for practice, in addition to conditioning and studying -- all on top of the rigors of college. It can be a drag.
After the Arizona game, I felt like it would all come crashing down at some point, even if only temporarily. The body language of the players wasn't quite right. They'd come out and hung with two of the best in the Pac-10, throwing haymakers and bouncing back in each game.
Take, for instance, Deone Bucannon. The freshman had been playing out of his mind at safety, recording 16 tackles against the Wildcats. When asked about Stanford and what they expected, his reaction was similar to "oh man, this is gonna suck." Each player was asked about the Cardinal and each seemed to be dreading the physical nature of the Cardinal after weeks of wear and tear.
While it was great they put together a furious rally in the fourth quarter against Stanford -- even if the touchdowns can be considered "garbage time" scores -- it seemed like they pushed themselves over the edge. In almost every game, they've been hit early and often, but to their credit they responded. When they did it again against the Cardinal, I looked at the Arizona State game and thought it would be the time they finally played dead. And they did.
We, as fans, expected a lot from the Cougs in the desert. It was a letdown to us, and an embarrassment, but it was also a blow to the players. All week they heard this was their chance, their time to shine and win, and it appears they bought into it. Take this from Kevin Kooyman, passed along by Christian Caple last night.
To clarify: Kooyman meant players bought into hype in negative way, not that fans were wrong for believing Cougs could win.
This team has shown twice this year that they don't know how to play as anything except the massive underdog. Against MSU -- in a game WSU was heavily favored -- the Cougs came out flat, only using a late fourth quarter surge to defeat the FCS school. The same thing happened again this Saturday, even though the Cougars weren't favored at all.
I don't know why they came out flat and rolled over. I get the feeling that the grind of the season took it's toll. Add in the hype surrounding the game and the team just didn't respond. The question now is whether they can pick up the pieces against a Cal team with their own road and injury woes.