Before we get into my thoughts about Saturday’s game, let’s take a stroll down memory lane real quick with the last five WSU teams to win nine or more games in a season.
October 25, 1997
WSU brings its sterling 6-0 record and No. 10 national ranking into a midseason matchup with unranked Arizona, now 3-4 after a 30-point loss the week before at home to Washington. The Wildcats take the Cougars to overtime, with WSU eventually prevailing (surviving?) to move to 7-0 when Arizona elects to go for two after a touchdown ... and fails to convert.
November 10, 2001
WSU brings its 8-1 record and No. 11 national ranking into a late-season matchup with unranked Arizona State. The Sun Devils — 1-4 in the Pac-10 and 4-4 overall — pull to within five points with just under 10 minutes to play at 21-16. The Cougars, playing with an ineffective Matt Kegel thanks to a Jason Gesser injury, need a trick play passing TD from running back Dave Minnich to Collin Henderson (on the other end of one of these for once) to put the game away. The other key play? A fumble that Raonall Smith returns for a TD that clearly wasn’t a fumble ... and would have been overturned today. WSU wins, 28-16, to move to 9-1.
WSU brings its 6-1 record and No. 9 national ranking into another midseason matchup with unranked Arizona, 0-3 in the Pac-10 and 3-4 overall. The Cougars played from behind for most of a sloppy game, as turnovers and special teams miscues sabotaged an offensive effort that eventually would end with WSU outgaining Arizona by more than 200 yards. Still, the Cougs didn’t take the lead for good until two minutes to play in the third quarter, when Gesser found Devard Darling for a touchdown. The game was sealed with a Jermaine Green 18-yard run midway through the fourth quarter as WSU moves to 7-1.
October 25, 2003
WSU brings its 6-1 record and No. 6 national ranking into a midseason matchup with unranked Oregon State, 2-1 in the Pac-10 and 5-2 overall. After WSU races out to a quick 14-0 lead, the Beavers rip off the next 25 points to take an 11-point lead into halftime. OSU holds a 28-16 lead heading into the fourth quarter before the Cougs rip off three touchdowns in about 5:30 to regain the lead, which they would not relinquish. WSU wins, 36-30, to move to 7-1.
November 7, 2015
WSU brings its 5-3 record into a midseason matchup with Arizona State, which is 2-3 in the Pac-12 and 4-4 overall. Coming off an emotional loss to Stanford, the Cougars quickly fall behind as the Sun Devils score easy touchdowns on their first two drives. It’s midway through the third quarter before the Cougs take their first lead, 17-14, on a Keith Harrington screen pass. ASU reclaims the lead a short time later with another TD, but WSU strikes again with a pair of touchdowns, the latter culminating a 99-yard drive. ASU won’t quit and pulls within a TD, but Dom Williams’ 75-yard catch-and-run on a slant puts it away for good. WSU wins, 38-24, in a game that was a lot closer than the final score and moves to 6-3.
In each of these games, WSU was the better team — sometimes by a lot.
In each of these games, the Cougars didn’t play very well for significant stretches.
And, in each of these games, they figured out a way to win on their way to an incredibly successful season.
Compared to the previous two weeks, in which WSU curb stomped Oregon and Stanford, the 27-21 victory over UCLA was thoroughly unimpressive. Although the defense played very well for the vast majority of the game, the offense clearly didn’t have its best stuff in some terrible weather against a really good UCLA unit. And even the Cougar D had its lapses, inexplicably allowing the Bruins and their backup quarterback to come alive and climb back into the game with a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns.
But, in the end, the offense did enough (aided by Erik Powell’s first two field goals of the year HOORAY!), and the defense made a big play with the game on the line (pressuring Mike Fafaul into heaving a quacker into the air, which Charleston White easily intercepted). And just like that, the Cougs had completed their “treacherous” run through Oregon-Stanford-UCLA a tidy 3-0.
I’m not sure the gravity of that has quite sunk in yet, but I’m working on it.
Now, I’m not saying these Cougs are on their way to a Rose Bowl or anything, as two of those teams at the top were — although I’m not not saying that, either — but if there’s one thing we know about sports, is that it’s impossible for any team to bring its very best every game. What separates the college football teams that win 10 games from the teams that win six games is that the teams that win 10 games are good enough to still win on the day(s) when they don’t have their best stuff. How many of you remember CFP champ Alabama barely escaping unranked Tennessee at the end of October last season?
And it doesn’t hurt to get a little lucky along the way; the task of beating UCLA was made significantly easier by the absence of Josh Rosen, just as Stanford’s injuries made a difference there, and just as Oregon’s inability to recruit a quarterback or anyone to play defense made a difference there.
But make no mistake: Just as you’ll never hear a Jack Husky making allowances for Luke Falk’s absence in the Apple Cup last year, you shouldn’t make any apologies for any of these, either.
Rosen or not, the team on the other side of the line of scrimmage was loaded with guys who wouldn’t even consider WSU — Jim Mora has landed six 5-star recruits and 51 4-star recruits in his last five classes. The same was true, to a slightly lesser extent, of Stanford and Oregon.
All of those school should still be able to beat Little Ol’ Wazzu, which signed three such players over that time frame. One never made it to campus. One was a quarterback who couldn’t beat out a walk-on and now starts for Montana State. The other is Gabe Marks. (Da Gawd.)
This isn’t meant to be a rant against recruiting services; we know “stars” are a significant predictor of team success. But we also know they don’t guarantee anything, and that coaching matters. And when your 3-star recruits have an off-day against their 4- and 5-star recruits and still win fairly handily ... well, that says something. About both teams.
I think one of my favorite Twitter people put it best:
What We Liked
I know that luck (or “randomness,” whatever your preferred choice of term) plays a significant role in turnovers. I won’t even try and deny that. But I’m continually amazed at the ways in which WSU defense hunts for the ball.
Two such plays came from rush linebacker Dylan Hanser, who twice chased down ballcarriers from behind to punch the ball free with teammates nearby to scoop up the loose ball. It’s the sort of thing that’s absolutely, positively, 100 percent coached by Alex Grinch and his staff, and it makes such a huge difference on a game.
SB Nation’s Bill Connelly has a turnover metric where he calculates the difference between expected and actual turnovers to come up with a “turnover luck” factor in his S&P+ ratings. For the second consecutive year, WSU is outperforming its expected turnover margin to the tune of roughly 2.5 additional points per game.
Is WSU just getting exceedingly lucky (or, “benefitting undeservedly from randomness”)? I suppose we’ll find out in the coming years, presuming defensive coordinator Alex Grinch sticks around. Maybe it will come back around to something more in line with what’s expected.
But between Luke Falk generally putting his throws where defenders can’t get their hands on them, to the ball carriers fumbling the ball less this year, to the defense looking for any opportunity to get its hands on the ball ... I’m inclined to believe there’s more going on here than just luck.
A number of young guys are seeing their snap counts increase as the season goes along, and with the suspension of rush linebacker Logan Tago — and perhaps the looming expulsion of nose tackle Robert Barber — their development is a welcome sight.
It was impossible not to notice true freshman Derek Moore regularly setting up shop in the UCLA backfield early in the game. The amazing thing about Moore is that he still looks a little gangly; when he fills out, he’s going to be an absolute monster. (And, in case you didn’t know, USC tried haaaaaard to flip Moore leading up to signing day last February.)
Ngalu Tapa, a wide-bodied defensive lineman, got what seemed like the most significant amount of run of his career, and played well. We’ve been waiting for the redshirt sophomore to make an impact, as he sure looked in high school as if he possessed the physical tools to be successful.
And Nnamdi Oguayo, a redshirt freshman, was the one who made the hit on Fafaul that forced the bad pass that turned into the final interception of the game.
Get excited for their development!
Honorable Mention: Cole Madison. I assumed the right tackle wouldn’t play after suffering some kind of knee injury last week. I assumed wrong. He came into the game and played so well that he wrestled the team’s Bone Award — given to the top offensive lineman — away from Cody O’Connell. Gutsy performance.
Honorable Mention 2: ERIK POWELL YOU STUD YOU!!!
What Needs Work
Can we stop with the damn presnap procedure penalties already? Leach and Sorenson each talked after the game about UCLA simulating snap counts, and nothing would surprise me when it comes to a Mora-coached team. That said, this isn’t isolated to the last game.
There’s not a strong correlation between penalties and a team’s record, so I’m not going to go crazy about it. But if it continues, it’s almost certainly going to end up biting the Cougs at a time when they’re trying to win a tight game.
The Cougs travel to the desert to take on Arizona State. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. PT in Tempe, and Pac-12 Networks will carry the broadcast. Can the Cougs break the curse? They’ve been slaying a lot of dragons the last couple of years ...