The Washington State Cougars are 6-1. Six-and-one! Can you believe it? Tied (basically) for first place the Pac-12 North, well positioned for a run to the Pac-12 Championship Game, ranked No. 15 in the country.
What a great time to be a Coug, am I right?
In spite of what happened on Friday — and in spite of yesterday’s disquieting news — I’ll stick with “yes.”
As is the case after a loss, there are a lot emotions swirling around for fans. You are certainly entitled to whatever emotions you are feeling in the wake of that debacle at Cal — side note: gonna just go ahead and put Berkeley up there with Tempe now — but really all I can do is laugh at the absurdity of it all, which I won’t bother to rehash here beyond this:
Cal’s scoring margin (34 points) was greater than its total offense margin (28 yards).
I understand if you’re mad about it. It was embarrassing as hell to crash out like that, and I know our fan base is particularly sensitive to embarrassment. I get it.
I just can’t be angry.
First off, what happened in that game was so very ridiculous and out of character. We now have a seven-game sample of this team, and this is the only one that even remotely looked like this. Things got wacky, the Cougs lost their composure, and they eventually rolled over.
And guess what? Pretty much every team craps its pants at least once a season! Yes, even Washington! Hopefully that made you feel a teensy bit better, but if you’re not into schadenfreude, at the very least, it should show you that these things just happen. (Of course, the differentiating factor obviously is that when we do it, we seem make sure it’s the most epic pants crapping possible. Price of being a Coug, I guess.)
Even though UW Twitter would like to try and litigate the relative merits of the losses because of the scoring margin, the reality is this: One loss is still one loss regardless of the manner in which it took place, so WSU is still as well positioned today to meet whatever goals you had for the team before the season as it was before the loss. And yes, that even includes the goal of reaching the College Football Playoff, if you were inclined to dream that big.
The standings now look like this:
That means WSU could beat Stanford, win just two of three against Colorado, Arizona and Utah, and still be playing for the Pac-12 North in the Apple Cup even if Washington wins rips off four consecutive wins. Win them all, including the Pac-12 Championship Game? You’re still most likely in the CFP. (And God bless you if you’re dreaming that big.)
It definitely felt terrible to stumble so profoundly, and since sports are fundamentally an emotional experience, the attendant despair is natural. What if this is actually how good this team is?? But with a couple of days to breathe (and especially in the context of Saturday’s other results), it’s hard for me to not still be tremendously optimistic about the season.
Sure, this team is flawed. (INSERT AUDIBLE GASP.) Did anyone think it wasn’t? And, by the way, that’s every damn team except for Alabama, and the Crimson Tide darn near lost to Texas A&M. Clemson, thought to be on par with Alabama, just lost to Syracuse. For the crowd who thought “we never were a top 10 team,” I suggest you look at the top 10, and tell me which of those teams after No. 1 doesn’t have something that concerns its fans. That’s college football.
Your level of optimism probably has a lot to do with whether you think something got exposed on Friday that will haunt WSU the rest of the season. I tend to think not.
No matter where you stand on Luke Falk and his particular style of quarterbacking, I think we can agree it’s highly unlikely he’ll even throw as many as three interceptions in a game the rest of the way, let alone five. And it absolutely was those turnovers — plus a couple of fumbles, one of which came from him — that skewed the final margin, both neutering WSU’s scoring chances and propping up Cal with short field after short field.
Beyond the turnovers, you might be concerned that the offense still sputters with regularity. That’s fair. But it was good enough to beat USC, good enough to hang 33 on Oregon on the road. If this is what it is, it’s still pretty damn good; if it gets better, we’re in good shape. I believe it’s going to continue to get better as the team adjusts to how defenses are playing them.
And while the defense got gashed a bit in the second half, they still only allowed 365 yards and 5.2 yards per play — something we’d classify as a bit below average rather than terrible. The manner in which it happened is probably at least a little concerning; Cal went heavy in the second half and was the first team that truly took advantage of WSU’s light front. It looked a heck of a lot like the second half against Colorado last season, where the Cougs really were helpless against slight variations of the same play over and over and over and over.
But we’ve got six games where this defense worked, and one game where it didn’t. Y’all were ready to anoint Alex Grinch as Mike Leach’s successor, so I’m not throwing out the baby with the bath water just yet. In particular, Justus Rogers seemed to get picked on, and I have to believe there’s an adjustment coming that will mitigate WSU’s exposure to that sort of attack. (Related: I never thought we’d legitimately miss Nate DeRider, but here we are. Please get well soon, Isaac Dotson.)
The offensive line also wasn’t great, but I also don’t think they were as awful as some others do. I think that was probably within the range of what we should probably expect from the group. Near the bottom of the range, sure ... but in it. Fred Mauigoa — just a true sophomore — is vulnerable to strong, short, nose tackle types who can out-leverage him on a bull rush; B.J. Salmonson is vulnerable to pretty much anyone in the Pac-12 with a pulse. Those two things aren’t changing, so at some point, Falk has to make a decision to help them out by not holding the ball for six seconds and concede that it’s OK to fire a ball at someone’s feet or over their head at the boundary once in a while, rather than taking a sack. But let’s not forget: They held up well enough against USC’s line, which is pretty good. I don’t see this as some Achilles heel.
The punting? Well, I really have nothing for you there; at this point, we can’t even trust Mitchell Cox kick the ball 30 yards to a fair catch every time. That said, I actually trust him to do that more than I trust Erik Powell and Kyle Sweet as they continue to dabble poorly in a thing that’s not their primary focus on this team. The rugby punting is a most spectacular failure, and it’s well past time for Mike Leach to step in and take away Eric Mele’s toys.
I just don’t think any of these things will be major problems that are absolutely destined to destroy this team and send them crashing through the final five games of the season. Maybe I’m wrong to be optimistic. I’m sure there are some of you out there who will tell me that I am.
But I’m determined to live in the moment, take a big picture view, and continue to enjoy the remainder of this season. If Bill Moos’ departure reminded us of anything, it’s that everything can change in an instant; if our history tells us anything, it’s that success at WSU is fleeting. And as I get older, I’m trying to learn to just enjoy the good stuff, because man ... when WSU is 6-1 and ranked in the top 15, worse is always lurking right around the corner.
“Worse” can wait. I’m with Gabe.
I'll see you fuckers next week in pullman. Let's Ride! #GoCougs— Gabe Marks (@throwitupto9) October 14, 2017
What We Liked
I think nobody got seriously injured? That’s all I got.
What Needs Work
I sort of undermined this section with the things I said in the topper, so let’s just recap:
- Falk must decide to get the ball out sooner.
- Defensive schemes need to be adjusted to protect against what we saw in the second half.
- Scrap the rugby punt, for goodness sake.
It’s homecoming in Pullman!
Colorado comes to town, and while I hesitate to make too many judgments about with what kind of ease WSU should win this game, given what took place on Friday, I’ll just say this: The Buffaloes are 1-3 in the Pac-12 with a standard loss to UW, narrow losses to UCLA and Arizona, and a 3-point win over Oregon State. Yes, Oregon State.
If WSU is the team I believe they are, they should feed off what will be a sold out Martin Stadium and take out some frustrations on the Buffs — who, by the way, handed it to the Cougs last year. Lotta revenge factor going on in this one. I don’t gamble, but whatever the spread is, I think it’s probably not high enough.
The game will kick off at 7:45 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPN.