When WSU embarked on its ridiculous four-ranked-opponents-in-five-weeks stretch beginning at the end of September, I wondered just how bad it would get.
And while there were promising signs against both USC and UCLA, I anticipated the worst in wondering how the Cougs would come out the other side of the murderers row of Oregon, Arizona and Stanford. In my mind, I resigned myself to three atrocious blowouts with the list of injuries expanding to a comical size. Basically, I expected what happened the last two years.
Of course, what actually happened was a far cry from that. The Cougs went toe-to-toe with the now-No. 1 team in Oregon, nearly drawing within a TD at the end of the third quarter; the now-No. 15 team in Arizona, holding the Wildcats to just 24 points; and the now-No. 13 team in Stanford, closing late to make the margin 10 points. There still were plenty of issues in each of these games (turnovers, dropsies and run defense among them), but they were hardly the train wreck most of us envisioned.
Beyond that, this team emerged relatively healthy from playing a trio of teams thought to be physically superior to the Cougs. With eight games in eight weeks under its belt, WSU really is only down one significant starter at this point. The other guys stepping in for injured starters -- C.J. Mizell and Deone Bucannon, for example -- have proved to be upgrades over the players they've replaced.
These guys didn't just survive that crazy difficult stretch. They actually thrived in it.
Which is why it's time for these guys to take the final step and break through with a victory.
Not for us. For them.
Through the first two years of Paul Wulff's tenure, the coach preached patience. He told us there were problems. He didn't get too specific, but in many instances, he didn't have to. Run-ins with the law, academic drop-outs, lazy players ... it was all there on display. As the disastrous losses piled up in 2008 and 2009, he kept saying 2010 would be better.
And then it wasn't. Oklahoma State was an unmitigated disaster. Just more of the same. Montana State was pretty much a fluke. Fans were rightfully not pleased that a fluke is what it took to beat an FCS school. Through it all, Wulff said the players were young, that improvement was going to have to be measured in other ways, blah blah blah. And those who were behind Wulff's rebuilding job were starting to wonder if the coach might have oversold his team.
Then the team went to SMU, and while the Cougs clearly played a bit better, it was still a two-touchdown loss to a team WSU beat the year before.
But then a funny thing happened after the game. The patient Paul Wulff was replaced by an impatient Paul Wulff: "The bottom line is we lost the ballgame and I don't think anybody was very happy about it. We've got to get away from feeling satisfied about every little thing we do better. At this point, nothing needs to be making us feel quite good enough."
And thus began a transformation where caution began to be thrown to the wind and winning became an expectation, not a pipe dream. The power offense that was so dismal in the first three contests? Scrapped in a week for a wide-open attack. It worked for a half against USC, but a poor second half left a bitter taste in players' mouths: "I think we're going to take this loss and allow it to add fuel to our fire," offensive lineman B.J. Guerra said.
Did it ever. Only an overturned touchdown and a futile goal-line series kept the Cougs from a fourth-quarter lead against UCLA. Many fans were ecstatic following the game. Competitive? On the road against a team that just beat back-to-back top 25 opponents?
But there clearly was an air of disappointment around the game for the players. They felt like they had let a golden opportunity to win slip through their fingers. And they weren't satisfied.
Then came Oregon. These guys made the Ducks work hard for every inch they got -- maybe harder than they had to work all year, including against Stanford. The Cougars were a hair away from putting a legitimate scare into the team sitting atop the major human polls, bludgeoning the Ducks in the process.
Fans were again happy. The players?
Logwone Mitz: "We need to get a W. I'm sick of just showing we're a good team, we're better than the past year or two years. We need to get a W in the win column and go from there."
Sekope Kaufusi: "There is so much potential for this team. I don't know how to explain it. It just hurts to know that we could've came out with a victory."
Jeff Tuel: "I've never heard guys more hungry for the next week, next game, than I did after that game. Nobody was hanging their head. Coach Wulff had us fired up in there and guys were ready to go out and play another game right now. They're hungry, we're hungry. We're tired of being in games and we're ready to start winning games and we know we're gonna do that down the road here as we continue to get better and execute like we have."
It's one thing to give lip service and say the right things. Heck, there were times in the last two years where guys said they were sick of losing. But for the first time, I believed that they believed what they were saying.
How did I know? For the first time in two-plus years, these guys started to take the fight to their opponent. Oregon, Arizona and Stanford saw a level of aggression and physicality from WSU that they simply hadn't seen over the past two years. None of them looked prepared for it. I don't think it's an accident in the slightest that all three games were described as "ugly" by observers from the other team. It's just not a coincidence. The Cougs are the ones uglying these games up with their effort and intensity.
They might not have been able to keep up with Oregon's offense, move the ball well against Arizona's defense, or stand up for 60 minutes in the face of Stanford's physical rushing attack, but in all three games, all three teams emerged knowing they had just been in a fight. For the first time in two-plus years, the Cougars were the ones sending guys from the other team to the sidelines with injuries. And while the Stanford game might not have been as close as the final score indicated, the Cougs went down swinging.
This team is sick of losing. And they're not taking it lying down anymore.
I work with the Young Life organization, and one of the things we talk about is "earning the right" to have influence in kids' lives. You don't just waltz into a someone's life and influence them. There's a price to be paid to build a relationship, just like there's a price to be paid to play winning football. You don't just stumble on winning -- you've got to "earn the right" to win.
Bill Doba's final teams didn't earn that right. Paul Wulff's first two teams didn't earn that right.
Over the last three weeks, this team has earned that right.
Arizona State couldn't be more ripe for the picking. Reeling from a blowout? Check. A team that folded its tents down the stretch the last two years in the face of adversity? Check. Decimated by injuries? Double check.
The Cougs are hungry. They know they can win. It's time for these guys to break through.
And that time is now.
Many thanks to Brian for getting the great quotes from the locker room after the Oregon and Arizona games.