The Washington State Cougars are a very good football team. It's amazing to say that considering the first month of the season, but it's true: This team can hang with, and beat, anyone in the Pac-12. And despite letting Stanford out of its grasp, Washington State has bowl eligibility in sight and can legitimately run the table over the last month of the season.
If you listened closely, the last four games have been an interesting look at the psyche of a fanbase in tradition. Beat Oregon and it feels like a huge moment that comes with a strong hint of "was this a fluke?" Follow it up by coming out firing against a bad Oregon State team and you start to wonder if it's real. Win in the desert against Arizona? Rose Bowl.
That was basically the progression over the last month. But with Stanford looming, there was this: We think this team is good, but are waiting for the bottom dropped out. There was hope for a win and a legitimate fear that Stanford could blow the Cougars doors off.
Stanford has been running the Cougars over since Jim Harbaugh quickly established his bulldozer-style death scheme seven years ago. There have been blowouts and one-score games in that span, but Stanford has bullied the Cougs for what seems like forever. That didn't happen last night, and Washington State showed it can stand up and trade punches with anyone.
Think about this: Over what seems like the last decade and may actually be pretty close to that, the Cougars have had to play just about perfect to even have a shot at the Pac-12 elite. And while the conference is down this year, Washington State has had a shot late in every single Pac-12 game it's played despite not playing anywhere near perfect in any of those games. The Cougs made plenty of mistakes on Saturday, yet still had a field goal for the win with time running out.
What you saw in the driving rain at Martin Stadium on Saturday was a front seven that looked fast, mean and vicious. The Cougar defense didn't fill gaps and try to plug up holes; it shot gaps, played aggressive and made an experienced offensive line and starting quarterback looked lost for a good chunk of the game.* It spent 60 minutes keeping Heisman candidate Christian McCaffrey mostly in check, holding him to half his normal production.
*Pay Joe Salave'a all the money, forever. What he's done here is incredible, and much of the success of the front seven can be traced back to his recruiting. Ken Wilson, too. His backers are playing out of their minds.
This is the style of defense that perfectly compliments the Air Raid: Aggressive and prone to giving up an explosive, but also liable to create its own explosives. If the Washington State defense can play anywhere near the level it did on Saturday night, watch out.
You saw an offense that looked dead early and hit-and-miss for large chunks of the game buoyed by a surprising defense. We've seen how bad Mike Leach's teams can look if the offense isn't clicking, trotting out for short three and outs that take little time off the clock and don't let the defense get in its rest. Yet that didn't happen in a shaky first half. Instead, the offense and defense kept plugging away, taking a two-score lead into halftime.
There was no quit, no giving up when Stanford inevitably punched them in the mouth. It shouldn't be a surprise at this point that the Cougs did what they've done all year: Punched back, pushed back, and kept fighting. It almost worked, too.
This is a fun team. It wasn't a fun team a month ago, but we're watching Leach's team transform into what he wants. It has grown, improved every week since the bye, and is a legitimate threat to take out anyone on the schedule. When looking at Saturday night's loss in perspective, it's pretty amazing to think about how far this team has come.
If you were making lines for the rest of the season right now, Washington State should be favored in every single game left on the schedule. There's a clear path not just to bowl eligibility, but to an appearance in one of the upper tier Pac-12 bowls. They still need to come out and play with their hair on fire against Arizona State, avoiding a letdown after an emotionally-charged loss, but this team can get after anyone when it's clicking.
The Cougars had a chance to end Stanford's playoff hopes not as a bottom-feeding spoiler looking to pull an upset, but as a team that was a 43-yard field goal away from snatching control of the Pac-12. The Cougars controlled the game throughout and played stride for stride, blow for blow with the Cardinal. This team is real. It's growing up in front of our eyes and playing with a confidence that it can beat anyone that steps in its way.
Things are clicking right now, and despite the missed opportunity, this team is something you should be excited about.