Coming off a close loss to a top-10 Stanford team, Washington State was ripe for a letdown. That's what you've been trained to think after watching the last decade of Cougar football. That's probably what you should think after seeing Arizona State march up and down the field for a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. And after Luke Falk put the defense right back on the field with an interception, it was hard not to think "Oh, this again."
Yet this is what followed: A fourth down stop to keep the score at 14-0; a defense that gave up 10 points the rest of the way; an offense that closed the gap to four by halftime, then exploded for 21 points in the fourth quarter to not just finish the game, but bury the Sun Devils. Welcome to the new Washington State football.
It's natural to think this team is teetering on the edge of disaster. It's been what feels like forever since the Cougs were good. Not just good in spurts, but a team that could walk out onto the field with anyone in the conference and be in a position to win.
What you saw on Saturday was another question answered. Could this team come back from having a shot to beat Stanford on the last play of the game and put away an opponent they were favored against? Could they spot a team 14 points and claw back? The answer, like everything since a frustrating loss to Cal, was a resounding yes.
Walk into Oregon with the best shot to beat the Ducks in quite some time and take care of business? Check. Demolish a team you're better than to follow it up? Check. Go on the road and prove it's real against a desperate Arizona team? Check. Hang with a top-10 team until the very end? Check.
Since taking a shot in the mouth from Portland State and shakily navigating the next three games, Washington State has steadily, even surprisingly, improved each and every game. They've shown you something every time they've taken the field, and they've never rolled over and died. Not when they had to mount a desperation drive to get to overtime (and then beat) the Ducks; not when Arizona State had its foot on their throat in the first quarter.
This team has learned not only to limit mistakes on the defensive side of the ball, but to punish teams for mistakes. The defense survived the early onslaught, bowed up and made a huge fourth down stop, and spent the rest of the day making ASU work.
Against Stanford, there was a letdown after the fumble-that-wasn't for a few minutes of game clock. It made the difference in the game. There was a chance for the same thing to happen against the Sun Devils, after a 13-second drive in the fourth quarter that led to a 6-yard punt. All the defense did was stiffen up once again, make a huge third-down stop with their backs against the wall, limiting Arizona State to a field goal.
And the offense did exactly what should have been expected: It closed out a game with authority. One play after Arizona State cut the Cougs' lead to seven, Luke Falk hit Dom Williams on a slant and watched him go 75 yards for a touchdown. That's why you continue to do what you do best to close out a game.
You're watching a team continue to grow every week, and I don't think they've figured out where their ceiling is yet. But this isn't because of inconsistency. They simply keep improving and raising the bar for themselves each time they step onto the field.
This should feel weird to you. It's been a decade since Washington State has played like this while answering question after question along the way. We've seen what we've thought were program-changing wins followed by huge letdowns and more of the same. We've seen inconsistency, and inability to finish games, and games where they simply roll over and die. Despite how they started this year, this team simply does not quit and has been in every single game its played, with a chance to win each of them.
The Cougs can win every game left on their schedule. You shouldn't just consider this a possibility at this point. You should expect it.