Reflecting on last week's game against Oregon, I felt that the Cougs might have taken a big step in becoming a solid football team that could compete with anybody in the Pac-12 conference. Unfortunately, since the Cougs ultimately lost the game, I had to bring up a term that Coug fans have come to loathe "m---- v------."
A lot of people were upset with me that I brought up the term since they want to believe that is an aspect of the "bad old days" gone by. I vehemently disagree with that in the case of the Oregon loss. The Cougs played a beautiful game against the Ducks and nobody should take away from them just because the game ended in an Oregon victory. WSU fell short because there still remains a big enough talent gap between a team that has consistently recruited towards the top for several years and a team that is just beginning to gain momentum in the recruiting game. As Jeff pointed out last week, the Oregon game showed that gap is beginning to narrow. The victory against Utah confirms that.
From this day forward, I consider the term "m---- v------" to be right up with the expression "C--- i-" Just don't say it! It's not applicable for any game going forward this season and it shouldn't be of any relevance for seasons to come. WSU is starting to show that they are in the mix with the rest of the Pac-12 conference and can be a team that can compete with any Pac-12 team on any given week. It's all black and white from here on out. We either win or we lose.
The Utes might not be in the top tier as far as Pac-12 teams go. However, there aren't many teams in the conference that can survive spotting them 21 points, and the Cougs did. That brings me to the what I consider to be really the most impressive aspect of the game. The reality of watching the game was a narrow one point victory that was an absolute nailbiter down to the final minute. The reality of what actually transpired on the field was 52 minutes of dominance in which WSU outscored Utah 28-6 to close out the game.
After the 76 yard run by Devontae Booker that set the Cougs down 21-0, Mike Leach could be seen on the sideline with the entire team in a huddle. I am not a very proficient lip reader, so I couldn't tell exactly what was being said. He was definitely making a point with his index finger solidly aimed at the entire team, but he still kept his stoic pose as if to say, "This isn't the team that we are, and it's time to get your focus and play the way we know we can."
Leach won 84 games as the head coach of Texas Tech. Of all those games, there is one that he paid particular attention to in his autobiography Swing Your Sword. That game was a 44-41 victory against Minnesota in the 2006 Insight Bowl. The Red Raiders went into the half of that game trailing 35-7. During halftime, Leach gathered his position coaches and sent them the message to "get your players right," and they did. Leach seemed to singlehandedly do that during the first quarter Saturday. There are a lot of X and O reasons why WSU was able to come back in the game. However, I pin a lot of what transpired after that point on Leach's leadership. The coach we thought we hired in November 2011 was the coach that we saw on Saturday evening.
The problem that hampered the Cougs in the first two games of the season was not putting together a full game together in all three facets, offense defense, and special teams, which led to early deficits that proved to be dooming. Each of these units was responsible for a touchdown that was part of the 21-0 deficit the Cougs had to overcome. It was three plays that Utah was able to make on defense, special teams, and then offense that led to three early touchdowns and what seemed to be an insurmountable deficit. This is a team that has a tendency to dig holes for itself, and Saturday they dug one that they were finally able to climb out of.
"Digging out of a hole" is a theme that just seems to be applicable to this season. The Cougs dug a huge hole in their schedule when they came out and lost two games to teams that they should have beaten. As to why the WSU lost those games is a moot point now. Whether it was a lack of effort, lack of execution, lack of focus, we really can't say with certainty. The only thing we empirically know is that the Cougs lacked the points to win their first two games.
Those games are only a mere three and four weeks in the past. But with the way the Cougs have played the last two weeks, the time distance seems much greater than that. The last two games have shown that the program is in a place where fans hoped that it might be when the season began. Going forward, let's hope that the Utah game becomes a microcosm of the entire 2014 season: a poor start and a lights out finish. The bottom line still isn't pretty with the Cougs sitting at 2-3. However, a win next week evens things up and puts the Cougs on pace to make a second consecutive bowl.
The biggest obstacle that I think the Cougs will face this week in their preparation for Cal is putting Saturday's game behind them. Leach said after the Oregon game that the impressive effort posed the risk of being a "distraction" for the team. The Utah game ultimately proved that not to be an issue. Now the Cougs will need to avoid distraction again to put together a solid winning effort next Saturday.
I think preseason expectations, both from fans and themselves, weighed too heavy on this team and they weren't able to channel those expectations one week at a time. Honestly, learning to play with expectations is something that hasn't been around for a while so maybe it shouldn't be a shock the team handled it in the way they did to start out the season. If the Cougs can learn to focus on one game at a time, then the 2014 season could still add up to something special and a proper mentality will be in place for the years to come.