In 2009, a group of friends and I made sure to get to the SMU game. The rationale was simple: Washington State was going to be bad, and SMU represented what we saw as the only winnable game on the schedule. Our hunch was correct, and it took a ridiculous fourth-quarter meltdown from SMU to secure what would be the Cougars' only win of the season. This was low.
In 2010, WSU was supposed to be better. Yet again it took an out-of-this-world fourth quarter comeback to pick up an early win -- this time against Montana State. Yes, the Cougars went on to knock off Oregon State on the road, but watching Montana State run away with the game -- even if WSU came back -- was a lower point. Yet that team, bad as it was and bad as that stretch of seasons was, did not lose to an FCS team.
Which brings us to Saturday's season opener. The first game of the season is supposed to be fun, a celebration of college football's return. Everyone is a blank slate, filled with hope stemming from unknowns. We default to the positive side of those unknowns, no matter how bad the previous season was. Saturday's game against Portland State was supposed to be easing into the schedule, a tuneup before a road test against Rutgers. College football was coming back, and it was an exciting time.
I was excited about Washington State football this year. It seemed possible that last year was a tad bit of regression after going to a bowl game well ahead of schedule the year before. There was talent, on paper, and a better understanding of the system. The defense was new and fresh, and hey maybe a change at the top of the org chart was needed on that side of the ball.
Despite the 10-0 scoreline at halftime, Saturday still looked like a walk in the park -- a bit more brisk and challenge (more like a day hike), but still. The Cougars were very much in control both offensively and defensively, despite struggling in the red zone and on special teams. It didn't feel like there was much to be concerned about. Washington State was controlling the game.
It's not just that Portland State scored 17 unanswered points to take the lead. And it's not that a special teams fumble proved disastrous. Everything about how the second half unfolded is cause for concern. Portland State didn't use trick plays and huge gimmicks to burn Mike Leach and Alex Grinch. There was some "wildcat," sure, but the Vikings lined up and crammed it down the Cougars' throats. That shouldn't happen in Leach's fourth year.
There was no reason for the Cougars to get completely gashed on defense. The new look on that side of the ball appears to be "dumpster fire that takes half an hour to get roaring." The offense still isn't clicking, and receivers as experienced as Washington State's shouldn't be letting so many balls hit the turf (and don't use weather as an excuse).
Did I mention that Luke Falk went down putting his body on the line to convert a fourth down trailing by seven against an FCS team with under two minutes to go? And that none of it mattered because the game ended in an interception after a couple of dangerous, nearly-intercepted throws after Falk left?
I was excited enough to jump at the chance to see the Cougars in person next week. Rutgers isn't a neighbor of DC or anything, but committing to a weekend in Jersey seemed like a good idea before the season started. Hope is a funny thing. It's even funnier how quickly that hope evaporates.
I've seen WSU quarterbacks get obliterated by Portland State, two suffering serious injuries that required trips to the hospital in Wulff's first year. I've seen a one-win season and an Apple Cup that looked worse than a high school game. I've seen struggles against lower-division opponents and blowouts that seemed inconceivable 15 years ago. I've even seen the damn "no shutout" streak snapped.
This, however, is about as low as it gets, for me. Losing to an FCS team on opening weekend in a season we were hoping would be a bounce back is a punch in the gut right off the bat. Maybe it gets better and this was a hiccup. But right now, it's incredibly hard to watch, think about or root for this team. And it's nearly impossible to believe Leach has this team on the right track.
Welcome back to college football.