One of the greatest things the 2015 Washington State Cougars accomplished was convincing all of us who have been scarred by the past decade of football that it was OK to believe.
It was OK to believe that this team really was as good as it looked -- to believe that it wasn't a illusion.
Beating good teams on the road (Oregon, UCLA) ... coming within a field goal at the gun of beating a top 10 team ... handling bad teams (OSU, Colorado, Arizona) ... coming back from an early deficit against a pretty decent team (ASU) ... all of it convinced us that anything was possible.
Whoops! Guess we kind of whiffed on that one!
Most of the authors here were in agreement on that, by the way. And although I find it pretty funny that somewhere along the way, "WSU can win the Apple Cup with Peyton Bender" became "CougCenter says there's no drop off from Falk to Bender" (for real -- who in their right mind would say that?), I actually think the fact that we all believed that WSU could win the Apple Cup ...
- with a redshirt freshman QB
- making his first start
- leading the most QB-dependent system in the country
- at Husky Stadium
- in a rivalry game
- against the best defense in the conference
- desperately playing for its season
... is incredibly remarkable in and of itself. This is the kind of game we previously would have spent days trying to talk ourselves into, knowing in the back of our minds that it amounted to little more than mind tricks. ("It's a rivalry game! Anything can happen!") This time, we really believed it!
That would be a laughable accomplishment for a lot of other fanbases -- "seriously, you're excited about the fact that you believed you could win a game?" -- but those fans haven't been through what we've been through. They have no idea what it's like to turn on the TV every danged weekend for three entire seasons knowing you have absolutely no chance to win. They have no idea what it's like to constantly wait for the other shoe to drop when something good happens.
Hope was for everyone else. And this team ... they made it so that we didn't even have to hope. We moved past that. We just started to expect.
All of this is what made Friday so jarring.
Positing that WSU could win the Apple Cup with Bender began with a few assumptions, chief among them that the team would rally around Bender. Why wouldn't they? The Cougs had rallied against adversity all season.
They didn't. Nor were they able to rely on any of the other things we thought they probably could count on. Dom Williams dropped what was probably a TD on a screen to kill the first drive. Other wide receivers, including Gabe Marks, didn't make enough plays when there were plays to be made, either. (This, of course, was before Marks got broken in half fighting for extra yards in a game that was already lost.) And the defense, which had been so good and so aggressive, got put on its heels by a well-timed misdirection play, then stymied by a mediocre line, and then just run over.
Put simply, Bender wasn't blameless ... but he didn't get the help we all knew he was going to need, either. When friends asked me how I thought the game would go, I said I thought it was a high variance game -- Bender was almost certainly going to turn the ball over, and it was really just a matter of how bad the turnovers were. And when they happened, they were bad. And when it started to go bad, it just got worse, and for the first time all season, the Cougars were just incapable of getting the train back on the tracks.
Hence, Mike Leach's frustration in the postgame conference.
"I've been on both sides of kind of floodgate games. Fortunately I've been on the positive end of more of them than the negative end, but the thing is they're all the same," he said. "They're a deal that starts gradually and then it's a series of overcorrections. It's like fishtailing down a road or something like that. Then one thing leads to the next, leads to the next, leads to the next and that was us today."
"For whatever reason our guys played wide-eyed. And we’ve clearly beaten teams that are considerably better than Washington this year."
The biggest bummer of all this is that for everything this team accomplished this year -- eight wins! EIGHT! -- this game will inevitably leave a bad taste in many fans' mouths. Losing to Washington by five touchdowns is going to linger.
I had planned on writing something before the game on Friday to the effect of "go win this game, Cougs, because you deserve to cap this amazing season with something positive and memorable."
Well, they got it 50 percent right. That certainly was memorable!
The feeling I had over the weekend reminded me of the feeling I had after the New Mexico Bowl in 2013. Needing two wins in the final three games to get bowl eligible, WSU beat Arizona and Utah before losing a competitive Apple Cup on the road to a pretty darned good Washington team that would go on to win nine games. Coming off the mess that was Mike Leach's first season, 6-6 and a bowl game felt like a huge accomplishment worthy of celebration.
And it was ... right up until Jeremiah Laufasa and Teondray Caldwell fumbled away the New Mexico Bowl amid some questionable clock management.
Fair or unfair (and you can mark me down for "unfair," but I digress), in the span of about 90 seconds, a team that had built up so much good will in making it to WSU's first bowl game in 10 years would mostly be remembered for blowing a game in epic fashion and failing to achieve a winning record.
Will that be the fate of these Cougs?
Obviously, the winning record is secure. But on the heels of last week's debacle, the result of the bowl game is going to have an outsized impact on how this season is remembered. Fans are going to champing at the bit for something, anything to help them forget the disappointment. It worked in 2001 and 2003, and it can work again.
Win this game, and the Apple Cup becomes an easy-to-dismiss result explained away by the absence of our all-Pac-12 first team quarterback -- just as we don't dwell too much on the 2001 and 2003 Apple Cup losses these days after winning the bowl games in those seasons.
Lose this game, and another that should be unabashedly celebrated will once again be remembered for how it ended.
So go win this game, Cougs -- you deserve that after everything you've accomplished this season.
What We Liked
Since there really wasn't anything in the game to like, let's go outside the game. You know what I like? I like the fact that the game was nearly a week ago and Huskies are still talking about WSU -- in particular those postgame comments from Leach.
We all love to go in on the Huskies for their arrogance, and sometimes I think it's a little unfounded. (I said a little.) But being mad after winning a game because the opposing coach isn't genuflecting enough? That's got to be the most Husky thing ever, right?
I'm not going to sit here and try and convince anyone that Leach wasn't trying to tweak Washington just a little bit with what he said, but for those of us who follow the Cougars closely and are used to deciphering his rambling, semi-coherent answers to seemingly simple questions, there was nothing in what he said that surprised me, nor anything he said that was incorrect -- hence the fact that WSU fans have collectively shrugged while Husky fans are still all bent out of shape over "poor sportsmanship" and "sour grapes."
This is pretty great, really. The fact that Leach is this far in their kitchen is incredibly fun. I listen to a lot of sports radio in the Seattle area, and without a doubt, a significant portion of the conversation has focused on WSU and not UW -- even from UW fans.
WSU: 8-4 UW: 6-6 @Softykjr says "right now, I would say that Mike Leach has the bigger problem" loooooooooool
— Jeff Nusser (@NussCoug) December 2, 2015
Once upon a time, UW would have dismissed a giant victory over WSU as a typical result and not thought about it again. And yet here we are, almost a week later, and they can't even bring themselves to talk about whatever No Name Bowl they're going to end up in.
I like it.
What Needs Work
The nature of this particular loss begs an obvious question.
Does Luke Falk really mean that much to this team?
I'm not just talking in terms of production. I'm talking about the attitude that became the defining characteristic of WSU. The Cougars had lost three games prior to Friday by a combined 15 points. In each of those games, WSU had the ball with a chance to tie or win the game in the final two minutes.
Not this game, which was more or less over when UW went up 17-3 in the second quarter. As Leach described it, the Cougars "gave in" to the adversity in a way they hadn't literally all season. The timing was obviously horrendous, but beyond that, it's perhaps a signal that the program as a whole isn't quite as far along as we thought.
And I don't mean that as some damning criticism. This is still a generally young team, one that perhaps is still just a little more fragile than we realized. They were a bit lost without the ability to look to their leader.
I know Leach likes to stress "no excuses," and in his position, he absolutely is correct to do so. But as fans, we don't have to do that. And since we're all adults who live and work in the real world, we can acknowledge what happens when organizations lose their leaders: Sometimes, it just doesn't go well.
I believe that there will come a time in the near future when the steely resolve we saw from WSU in the other 11 games will be found up and down the roster and it won't much matter who's taking the snaps, at least in terms of attitude. It's just clear we're not quite there yet.
And at the risk of conferring the title of Jeff Nusser, Internet PhD, upon myself in order to make a too-sweeping conclusion ... this sure seems to be another point in the favor of, "holy wow ... Luke Falk is some kind of special."
A BETTER BOWL GAME THAN UW. SO THERE.
(Tune in on Sunday to find out which one!)