As Coug fans headed towards the Martin Stadium exits late Saturday night after a narrow 38-31 defeat against Oregon, a feeling of ambivalence filled the air. The outcome of the game was not what fans had hoped for after the WSU tied up Oregon 31-31 with 8:57 remaining in the game, but it was much better than almost anything they could have imagined, short of miraculous victory, a mere four hours earlier. The Cougars gave their all and left nothing out on the field. For that fans should be proud. WSU played one of the best teams in the nation and gave them all they wanted, and then some.
The impressive effort by the Cougs was not lost on Mike Leach, who seemed quite satisfied with the team's performance after the game. Leach noted that his team "played hard" and that the effort was a step in the right direction. Leach's statements after the game seemed to indicate that he was willing to accept a ‘moral victory' given the current situation the team finds itself in after opening the season with two very disappointing losses. Leach certainly isn't the type of coach that you can expect to be satisfied with anything short of a win or grandstand on the fact that his team didn't get embarrassed. Still, he knows his team needed to take a step forward and Saturday's game seemed to mark progress.
"We need to view this as a foundation and build up from there," said Leach after the game.
In reality, the Cougars' ‘impressive loss' really won't add up to a pile of beans unless the Cougs are able to follow it up by playing sharply and pulling out victories against their future opponents. Based on how WSU has played Oregon over the past five years, I'm slightly reluctant to call it progress. The Cougs haven't beaten Oregon since 2006, but they have notched several ‘moral victories' against the Ducks since 2010 that really didn't serve the team as the foundation that Leach is looking for. Let's take a look at what WSU has done versus Oregon over the past few years.
2010 Oregon at WSU: A 1-4 WSU squad hosted the No. 3 Ducks at Martin Stadium and played very well. The Cougs had a chance to pull within a score of the Ducks when a Jeff Tuel pass was intercepted in the end zone with less than minute remaining in the third quarter. WSU went on to lose the game 43-23.
2010 follow-up: WSU would only win one more game during the rest of 2010 (against Oregon State) and finished with a 2-10 record. Oregon would eventually reach the National Championship game where they fell to Auburn 22-19 on a last minute field goal.
2011 WSU at Oregon: WSU headed to Autzen Stadium on a three game losing streak, including a humiliating 44-21 loss against Oregon State the week before at CenturyLink Field. The Ducks were ranked No. 7 in the nation and many expected a brutal loss. WSU held their ground in the game heading into the half trailing 15-10. Oregon put together a strong third quarter that allowed them come away with a 43-28 victory.
2011 follow-up: Many Coug fans thought that WSU had played well and would be more competitive as the season progressed. That really didn't happen as the Cougs were thumped against a mediocre California squad 31-7 the week after. The Cougs did get an upset win against a reeling Arizona State team two weeks later, but still finished out the season 1-3 after the game.
2012 Oregon at WSU: The 2012 game was played at CenturyLink in front of a packed house that included a lot of Oregon fans. The morale of Coug fans was quite low heading into the game after the Cougs were humiliated the week before 35-34 against an abysmal Colorado team at home. The Ducks, on the other hand, entered the game as the No. 2 team in the nation. Catching a few early breaks and making a few plays, WSU narrowly trailed Oregon 23-19 at the half. The second half turned out to be ‘all Ducks' as Oregon was able to compose themselves to cruise to a 51-26 victory. Still, many WSU fans were satisfied that the Cougs were somewhat competitive and thought the season would improve.
2012 follow-up: A black cloud of tire fire smoke hovered WSU for pretty much the rest of the season following the Oregon game. WSU would go on to lose its next six games before ending the season on a high note with a miraculous victory in the Apple Cup.
2013 WSU at Oregon: For the first time in three years, Oregon was able to establish complete control throughout the entire game. Ranked No. 2 heading into the game, the Ducks jumped out to a 20-7 lead in the first quarter and never let WSU back in the game. The Cougs fought frantically to try to get back in the game as Connor Halliday aired out a whopping 89 passes, much to the chagrin of Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, but fell well short with a 62-38 loss.
2013 follow-up: While not as competitive as previous years against the Ducks, WSU did follow up strong after their loss to Oregon. They got shellacked in their next game against Arizona State 55-21, but the Cougs won two of their final three games to reach a bowl game for the first time in ten years.
Gleaning from recent history, it's clear that coming out against Oregon with a ‘moral victory' isn't always a clear pathway to success. Perhaps, Oregon has acquired a tendency to overlook the Cougs and not put their most impressive effort out on the field. One of Leach's pillars to success is to "be the most excited to play." The Cougs held a definitive edge on the Ducks in that category on Saturday.
A couple of weeks ago, I asserted that WSU was struggling because they didn't yet know how to win. If that is the case, Saturday's game does not fall into that category even though it was a close loss. Oregon just had more firepower and won the game. Sure there was a lack of luck with the missed call on a blatant pass interference at the end of the game. As Jeff Nusser pointed out a few weeks ago, the key to being a good team is getting to a place where luck doesn't matter. That is a clear truism, but not applicable in this loss.The Cougs needed to be good AND lucky to beat a team of Oregon's caliber on Saturday. They just didn't get the latter and it would have been real interesting if they would have.
The bottom line is this: the impressive effort the Cougs put up on Saturday is only as important as their next game. An ugly loss to Utah, who is coming off a notable road victory against Michigan, or a continued losing streak will make Saturday's game seem more like a fluke than progress.The next few games will tell whether or not Saturday's game was simply a flash in the pan or a true step forward.
After the game, I was talking to a WSU fan who made a pretty astute observation. He said something to the effect that for the second year in a row the Cougs might have lost to the eventual national runner-up by just a touchdown. Obviously, after last year's 31-24 loss to Auburn, nobody realized how much the Tigers would progress over the season to reach the National Championship game. Still, I would classify that game as a ‘moral victory' that gave WSU some confidence going forward in the season. The Auburn game served as a foundation to help the Cougs beat USC in their next game. Moral victories are only moral victories when they are followed by real ones.