If you believe in omens and signs, there were plenty last night. Leading up to Washington State's Friday night road game against Cal, you probably caught the end of Syracuse-Clemson — a game in which the 24-point underdog Orange stuck around all game and finished it off with a quarterback draw to preserve the win. It was Friday the 13th, ESPN said. Weird things happen.
And then the Cougars took the opening kickoff back to the house ... with a hold on the play. A great start negated by a head-in-your-palm penalty. What could've been a huge early statement instead left the Cougars backed up, leading to a Cal interception and points for the Bears.
Even as the Washington State offense bumbled around, things still felt relatively fine. Every single bounce and break was going Cal's way, and yet the Cougars drove the length of the field and put the ball into the end zone ... with a phantom offensive pass interference on the play. Still, 10-3 after all that didn't seem so terrible.
Despite the turnovers and mistakes, the Cougars had the ball with under 2 minutes to go in the half and a chance to tie things up. A fresh start. A chance to regroup.
This was where everything came back to bite them, though. A punt that went nowhere gave Cal field position with time running down. And with time for just one more play, Cal lined its offense up and caught the Cougar defense on its heels with play action to end the half with a touchdown. That chance to go into the half tied or down by a touchdown instead turned into a 14-point deficit. It was at this point it became clear that it wasn't going to be the Cougars' night. The Cougars couldn't answer the bell after that touchdown, and instead turned the ball over five (5!) times in the second half.
There are times where you realize a team just doesn't have it, that things aren't going to go their way. Last night was that for Washington State. After rattling off six wins, including a Friday night win in Pullman over a top-5 USC team and a road test against Oregon the following Saturday, Washington State ran out of gas. Just about every bounce, tip and swing went Cal's way on Friday night in Berkeley, and the Bears took advantage. It snowballed on the Cougars and there was no recovering. The end result was an offense that put up a measly three points, and a blowout loss to a Bears team that struggled mightily — to say the least — last week against Washington.
You woke up feeling something this morning. Maybe it was anger. Maybe you were embarrassed by the performance. Maybe you're confused, or worried that the Cougars are going to lose the next five games. None of these are good feelings.
College football is a weird game, though, in that teams tend to be incredibly volatile. One week you're a world-beater. The next you're getting pasted. This holds for about 90-percent of teams — save for the Alabamas of the world who have talent backing up talent backing up talent, and an army of coaching to keep things on track. One of the earliest lessons I learned covering and being close to the sport daily was this: These are still 18-to-22-year-old kids, and performances can vary wildly from day to day and week to week. You saw it with Clemson just before last night's game; with Oklahoma before that; and time and again there are inexplicable losses in college football — it's what makes the sport so fun.*
*Unless, of course, you're on the wrong end of those losses. Then ... not so fun.
Washington State came into the game banged up — especially on defense where linebackers and cornerbacks were out injured — and in the midst of a tough Friday-Saturday-Friday stretch that included back-to-back road games that last two weeks. The Cougars weren't a secret anymore, and had risen into the top-10. They were going to get teams' best shot. And they certainly got Cal's best — a great performance on both sides of the ball, and superb coaching by Justin Wilcox, Tim DeRuyter and Beau Baldwin. Baldwin and Wilcox alone made this matchup scary, considering how their teams have played the Cougars in the past.
It all showed as the Cougars made mistake after mistake on offense, compounded by balls bouncing right into defenders' hands. By the time a shovel pass bounced into a lineman's hands on one drive, followed by one bouncing off a sliding Tavares Martin Jr.'s hands for another Cal interception on the next, it was pretty much all over. Every time the Cougars' started feeling something positive ... poof. They weren't going to be able to muster a comeback, and they rolled over to play dead.
That last part is disappointing, too. Once things started to get off track, you could see and feel the team dropping its head, getting down — Mike Leach's biggest pet peeve and the thing that will set him off the most. It's a natural feeling when everything feels like it's going against you. And yet ... look, the second half was just a complete disaster that was painful to watch.
If you felt good about Washington State coming into the game, there's plenty of cause for concern. If you felt it was all a mirage, you probably feel validated. It's a game where you can take away whatever you'd like about how the rest of the season will play out, and it would probably fit.
But I'd caution everyone to settle in and see what happens next. The Cougars came flying out of the gate this year with a perfect start — six wins, no losses, a win over a top-5 team and a road test against Oregon that they passed nicely. As a Washington State fan, you're conditioned to always be waiting for the other shoe to drop. In some ways you expected a clunker to come at some point, and Friday night was it.
It doesn't feel good to watch the doors get blown off your team, especially when that team is undefeated, in the top-10, and has lofty goals. A lot of those goals are still within reach, though, despite the loss. I don't think anyone expected an undefeated season, and the Cougars were bound to drop at least a game somewhere.
Next week, Washington State comes back home to take on Colorado. That's where we'll find out what this team is made of. We'll see if the Cougars can play more like the USC game and less like the Cal game. We'll see how they respond, how they prepare, and what adjustments they make after getting kicked in the teeth. Maybe a taste of their own blood will wake them back up a bit.
The rest of the season could go either way right now, and Friday's loss introduces more doubt back into the picture (but let's be honest, this is a nervous fan base and that doubt has always been there in the back of your mind). Be frustrated, angry, or whatever you want to feel. But wait and see what comes next. How the Cougars respond will tell you a lot about this team.