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Cougars pass first November test with two more to go

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It wasn’t as close as the score. But nothing is ever easy.

Stanford v Washington State Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

Just about every time Washington State looks like it’s on the ropes, it bounces back swinging. It happened after losing to Cal, when the Cougar defense rebounded from a nightmare performance to blank Colorado. On Saturday it happened again as the defense flushed an Arizona game that saw the Wildcats run and throw all over them to shut down the Stanford Cardinal. And make no mistake about it, Saturday’s win over Stanford was courtesy of the defense.

Facing a Cardinal team that relies heavily on Heisman-hyped running back Bryce Love and an offensive line that’s created a reputation, over the last decade, for pushing people around, Washington State spent its night in the backfield. Love got his obligatory 50-plus-yard touchdown run — 52, to be exact — and that was it. He finished with 15 carries for 17 yards otherwise, while ending up on Hercules Mata’afa’s highlight reel.

This game shouldn’t have been close. Statistically, it wasn’t close: It was a dominating performance by the Cougar defense and a start-and-stop one by the offense. Seven of Stanford’s 21 points came on an ill-advised fourth-down throw by Luke Falk. Another seven came on a one play drive (the aforementioned Love run). The last seven: A dribbled keeper by K.J. Costello that may or may not have been a forward pass.

Consider that Stanford’s offense ran 47 plays from scrimmage. On 11 of those, a Stanford player was tackled for a loss (two sacks are mixed in there). The Cardinal committed to the run, and Washington State committed to hitting them in the mouth. Alex Grinch’s defense was paying rent in the backfield, and there was nothing that Stanford could do about it.

Consider, as well, that Washington State is still dealing with injuries at linebacker — the position most responsible for stopping, and cleaning up, the run game. Peyton Pelluer went down early. His backup, Nate DeRider, went down after. Isaac Dotson is still injured. Jahad Woods and Justus Rogers are freshmen playing over their skis, and out of their minds. This is part of why you saw the breakdowns against Cal and Arizona — there’s only so much they can do, and some of the inexperience shows in the form of long, gashing runs. They’ll miss gaps at times, leading to big problems. It happened once against Stanford, which is a price you pay, but overall the backups have shined.

Washington State is fueled by its defense. It’s the unit that keeps the Cougars in games as the offense looks for holes and tries to find a rhythm. It’s the one that makes plays and clamps down while not seeming to care if it’s put into bad positions. You all expected an offense-based team that could outscore opponents with passing. In 2017, you got a defense that’s doing the dirty work, and knocking teams in the mouth.

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It’s been a year of inconsistency on the offensive side of the ball, one in which Falk has been benched twice while also setting a bunch of conference records. The offense starts slow coming out of the locker room in the first and third quarters. Mistakes can snowball on Falk, and nearly did again on Saturday with a pick six.

You also saw the best of Luke Falk, and the thing that’s become so normal that it’s almost spoiled everyone. Falk has been incredible at digging the Cougars out of holes, even if they were the ones to make the holes in the first place. For three years now, it’s felt like the Cougars have a shot if they’re within some kind of striking distance in the fourth quarter. That’s largely thanks to Falk, to Jamal Morrow, to an experienced offensive line, to a group of seniors who bought in, has been battered around, and has come out the other end.

With the wheels off, needing 94 yards to take the lead back in the fourth quarter, Falk and the offense got to marching. A quick first down was followed by a third and 14 conversion to Tay Martin that saved the game and maybe the season. The Cougars never faced another third down on the drive after that. In fact, they only saw two more second downs on a drive that went 94 yards in 11 plays — one was two yards, the other just one yard. This was the Washington State offense at its best, mixing in gashing runs and relying on its experience running backs in the passing game, and finishing a drive by sending everyone vertical and letting Jamire Calvin leak across the formation and field for a wide open touchdown catch and run.

After Stanford opened the scoring with Love’s 52-yard scamper, the Cougars answered with a 75-yard touchdown drive. They followed that with a 71-yard touchdown drive. It’s been boom or bust on the offensive side of the ball, but when it’s clicking, the offense moves right along and picks up yards in chunks.

This was Luke Falk’s career in a single game. He started each half slowly, struggling to open the game and nearly cratering the team coming out of halftime. His pick six was opened the door for Stanford. His inability to find a rhythm was saved only by a defense playing out of its mind.

He also played nearly perfect quarters to finish each half. Back-to-back touchdown drives over 70 yards gave the Cougars a lead heading into halftime — one of which included a first and goal from the 30. He needed a fourth-quarter comeback and used almost the entire field to get it. This was everything fans love and hate about Luke Falk, wrapped up in 60 minutes of football on senior day.

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With Saturday’s win, the Cougars finished the season perfect at home — something that hasn’t been done since 2003. With two games left, Washington State still controls its own destiny in Pac-12 North, just like last season. All of the team’s goals are still in front of it.

And there’s still ghosts. There’s the ghost of the 2016 season, in which the Cougars dropped their final two games. There’s the ghost of the Boise State, Cal and Arizona games, leading to indecision about Falk and what the Cougar offense can do. Same for the defense, which can clamp down and shut out opponents, or give up numbers in chunks.

That’s part of being a fan of the Washington State Cougars. You live on the edge, and nothing will come easily. There’ll be ups, and while on the peaks you’ll wait for everything to crumble underneath you. The lows will feel extremely low. Sometimes those swings will happen in minutes, not weeks, months or years.

This senior class has pulled the Cougars out of those lows. It’s fought back from stumbles to open seasons before, and once again put the Cougars in a position to win the division.

They’ve bounced back from bad losses and answered just about question. There’s two more left, and they’re the same as last season. Time to find out if the answers are different.