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Stanford feels like another inflection point for WSU

The Cougars have reached a fork in the road.

Jack Ellis/CougCenter

Sports seasons have ebbs and flows, and this has certainly been a time of ebbing for the Washington State Cougars, owners of a three-game losing streak that has seen their record plummet from its high-water mark of 4-1 a month ago.

The Cougs achieved that fourth win with a comfortable victory over California — the sort of game they are supposed to win if they are who we hope they are. It was disappointing that they followed that up by losing on the road to USC (No. 9 in the first CFP rankings) and Oregon State (No. 23) and then at home to Utah (No. 14), but let’s be honest: It wasn’t exactly shocking, which is why I think nobody is pushing the panic button at the moment.

But it has put WSU in the position of facing yet another “prove it” game on Saturday against Stanford to get the wins flowing again.

The Cardinal sit at 3-5 and 1-5 in Pac-12 play; WSU is favored by 4.5 over at DraftKings with a moneyline of -190, which makes the Cougs just about a 2-to-1 favorite. The Prediction Tracker’s composite projection favors the Cougs by a hair over three points and sets their win probability at 58%. Those are all marginal numbers — the Cougs are hardly prohibitive favorites, and teams in WSU’s position lose all the time — but they point to this being a game the Cougars should win. That WSU hasn’t lost to the Cardinal since 2015 is just more fuel for that particular fire.

There are moments in a season that are going to tell fans a lot about who their team actually is; Wisconsin was one, and Cal was another. Heck, I bet OSU points to their win against us — which snapped an eight game skid in the rivalry — as that sort of game for their season.

Saturday is again that for WSU.

I’m fascinated by the dynamic at play here for coach Jake Dickert. He rightfully earned a ton of praise for the way he handled both his five games as interim coach last season and the beginning of this season, such that — as is de rigueur these days — his name was being bandied about for bigger jobs without even a full season of games under his belt.

But now, he faces adversity for the first time. Some might argue that last season was adversity, too, but I’d make a bit of a distinction that it was more of an adverse situation than actual adversity. As interim coach, he’s playing with house money — he’s got everything to gain and nothing really to lose, as nobody would have blamed him if the entire thing had fallen apart.

This is different. This is his program now. And it’s on him to right the ship.

Will the awwww shucks midwestern sensibilities that we loved so much at 4-1 get through at 4-4? Will he and defensive coordinator Brian Ward be able to cook up a defensive game plan that holds down Stanford’s anemic offense? Will he be able to nudge offensive coordinator Eric Morris in a direction that gets enough points on the board for any defensive effort to actually pay off?

The final third of the schedule certainly is manageable in terms of opponent quality — none of the opponents are ranked — and half the games come at home. What Dickert and his team do or don’t do on Saturday is going to tell us a lot. I wrote after the Oregon loss that, “For schools like WSU, football seasons aren’t made in games against Oregon — they’re made in games like Cal this weekend.”

I could say the same about Stanford. Win it, and the season is back on track. Lose it, and suddenly you need to win two of three just to get bowl eligible.

The Cougs need to play as if their season is on the line. Will they?


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