There was a moment you were worried on Saturday night. Coming off a Cal loss in which nothing went right for Washington State — especially on offense (hi seven turnovers) — you were worried the Cougars were broken. They came out of the gate slow against Colorado, and the offense wasn’t in rhythm. Maybe they weren’t going to get back on track. Maybe that 6-0 start was a mirage.
And then Tay Martin broke free on a post route, dusting a defender and scampering 50 yards for a touchdown with nobody in front of him. With Tavares Martin Jr. out due to suspension, someone needed to step up, to take over. Tay Martin did just that and made his presence felt right away, right as you were worried about the Air Raid offense falling completely apart.
It was Brandon Arconado on the next drive, breaking loose over the middle and diving into the end zone for his first score on his second career catch. Suddenly it was 14-0. Martin Stadium was drenched in a driving rain. The Washington State offense, water-logged to start, was alive and well.
All the while, the Cougar defense picked up right where it left off against Oregon — as if the Cal game just didn’t happen. This was a defense playing angry, swarming and not giving an inch to a Colorado. It was a defense that struggled against Cal last week, eventually breaking under the weight of turnovers and short fields. That didn’t happen this time.
Facing a talented running back in Phillip Lindsay, the Washington State defense sold out to stop the run game and dared Colorado to win through the air. They held Lindsay to 98 yards on 29 carries (3.4 yards per attempt) and kept him in check all night. Counting sacks and lost yardage on bad snaps, Colorado had 80 yards on the ground. There was absolutely zero room to run, and it was reminiscent of the Oregon game.
Without the run game, the Buffs were unable to do anything at all. Steven Montez was ineffective and lasted just one half. The backup, Sam Noyer, struggled just as much. As a team, Colorado was 13-for-34, passing for 94 yards. Twenty of those yards came in garbage time at the end. Montez finished with just 21 yards through the air. And the Cougar defense spent its evening pounding on whoever Colorado put in the backfield.
Whether it was Frankie Luvu flying around up front, Hercules Mata’afa having his usual solid, disruptive game, Jahad Woods continue to improve and show out in the middle, Hunter Dale flying around or Jalen Thompson showing why he’s a vital part of the defensive backfield, everything great about the Cougar defense was on display. They looked angry, and played that way. They wanted to punish Colorado, to bury them, to get off the field. Due to some special teams struggles (again), they had short fields to work with more often than not on Saturday. It was like a challenge for them, a game within a game that they handily won.
And oh yeah ... they pitched a shutout. In conference play. It can’t be understated how impressive that is, no matter the opponent.
Throughout the game, the commentators remarked about how the Washington State defense was undersized up front, and had to make up for it by shooting gaps. It was repeated over and over — “this undersized Washington State defensive line” — as if it was a negative. We hear it week in and week out. And yet, Washington State has found a scheme that fits its personnel. It works in their favor. They’re disruptive, they rally to the ball, and they leave offensive lines confused, confounded, and reaching at thin air.
It’s a thing of beauty to watch when it’s working, and you get the feeling that the defense will just find a way to get off the field. They got off the field all night long, forcing 10 (TEN!) punts and four turnovers on downs (while holding the Buffs to 2-of-6 on fourth down). It was stifling, swarming defense. And we need to accept the fact that Washington State is a lot more than the Air Raid.
Despite the conditions — a driving rain that was worse than it looked on television — the Air Raid did get it done on Saturday night. It started slow, and probably worried you. It picked things up in the second quarter and, after the defense took Colorado’s best shot to open the half, Luke Falk and Jamal Morrow buried the Buffs. Nine plays, 75 yards and about four minutes of game time, capped by Morrow’s 9-yard scamper in the end zone. The Cougars showed everything on the drive, including a pair of back-shoulder throws to Dezmon Patmon that paired nicely with a couple of Luke Falk scrambles (yes, seriously). It was 21-0 at that point, and Colorado looked ready to go home.
When everything is working right, the Cougars can suck the life out of an opponent. The defense suffocates. The offense has the ability to chew clock on long, meandering drives or quickly rip off a few long passes to score. It’s demoralizing for an opponent, especially in an awful rainstorm. As Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre spent most of his second half screaming at an official, it became pretty clear the Buffs wanted to dry off, to fly home and get the hell away from Pullman. That’s how it should look and feel for an opponent.
The Cougars had a heck of a weekend last week. Every bounce of the ball when Cal’s way on Friday night, and the Bears simply outplayed the Cougars in every phase of the game. By the end of the first half, Washington State was the team that wanted to go home. It was clear it wasn’t their day, and they rolled over. It left Leach fuming.
There were external distractions too. Bill Moos left on Sunday, leading to questions about the future of the athletic department. Tavares Martin Jr. was suspended for the Colorado game, and ended up apologizing to the team for his actions. There was frustration, and it could’ve easily spiraled out of control, leading to a loss against Colorado and perhaps a season that went down the drain.
But the Cougars bounced back in a big way and took care of business. It wasn’t pretty but neither was the weather in Pullman. There was beauty in how they did it, too: A steady dose of running backs and just enough through the air to setup the ground game. The defense, once again, led the way and set the tone. We should be used to it by now, and should expect it.
It was just a few years ago that bowl eligibility was a pipe dream. We used to go into each week hoping to not get embarrassed, to not get blown out, to show improvement. The health of the team was measured in quality of losses, and if the margins got better each week.
We’re spoiled in some ways now: bowls are expected and the goals center around winning the division and conference, not simply being happy to be here. The Cougars started the season 6-0 before face planting in Berkeley last Friday night. It was an incredible run to start the season, but the year could’ve gone south in a hurry too.
We were all wondering how the Cougars would respond against Colorado in Pullman on homecoming weekend. Washington State showed no signs of lingering struggles against the Buffs, bouncing right back and playing like a team that started 6-0, not one that got run out of Berkeley.
This is the Cougar team we’ve come to expect, and this is who the Cougars are. Despite rain and wind that drove fans from the stands and into bars, we were treated to fun football on both sides of the ball. The Cougars got back on track, and all of their goals are still in front of them.
Enjoy the ride again. We’re watching some of the best football we’ve seen in years, and maybe in Washington State history.