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The Monday After: When you’re a team

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They are us. And we are them.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Colorado Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

All season, we’ve marveled at how the Washington State Cougars overcame an offseason of such tremendous loss to do what they’re doing now — moving to 9-1 overall and 6-1 in the Pac-12 following Saturday’s dismissal of the Colorado Buffaloes, ranked in the top 10 of the College Football Playoff picture for the third consecutive week.

There’s almost certainly no easy answer for how you get from there to here, but this tweet from Brock Huard — the former Washington Huskies quarterback and current ESPN game analyst who was on the call on Saturday — really struck a chord with me:

When life goes sideways, as it did for this football team starting last December, responses typically go one of two directions: We either withdraw, or we hold on to each other even tighter. And it would have been very, very easy — and perfectly understandable — for this group to splinter apart given the circumstances in which they found themselves.

Instead, they went the other direction. I’m not going to sit here and pretend to know exactly why or how that happened, both because I’m not that close to the program and because these sorts of things rarely have simple explanations. But there are things that seem meaningful that are readily observable from the outside. Some of it is standard “us against the world” fare, but not all:

And this is just the stuff we know about. That these guys held on to each other so tightly in the face of such adversity cannot possibly be an accident when viewed through the lens of the culture Mike Leach has established, in which “be a team” is one of three axioms by which everything is judged.

“We love each other, man,” wide receiver Easop Winston Jr. said. “Whether it’s the scout team or whether you’re a starter, everybody’s buying in every practice and it’s just wonderful to see.”

There’s definitely a “chicken or egg” argument that one could make in all of this; there’s little doubt they’d be having less fun if they weren’t winning. I think we can assume we wouldn’t see this in a meeting if the Cougs had just suffered their fifth loss:

That doesn’t really matter, though, since they are 9-1, and they are having the time of their lives. The confluence of events that led to this point — both negative and positive — are inextricably tied together.

Still, it’s beyond remarkable that they have done it in the midst of a particular set of circumstances that could have caused a lot of large groups of 18- to 23-year-olds to crumble. Look around the country this time of year, and you’ll find examples littered across college football of teams falling apart because of far less.

There’s a palpable sense that these guys enjoy each other and play hard for each other in a way that’s uncommon.

“I think we have less selfish people,” senior nose tackle Taylor Comfort said. “More people that just want to give it out for their brothers and I just think in years past we might have had people that, it made it harder to be close when you’re a little more selfish.”

I think that “one-for-all” attitude is a big part of what’s made this all so darn enjoyable for everyone associated with this season, including us fans. We all have an innate sense that this is pretty special, and it’s not just the winning. WSU has won a lot of games by WSU standards over the previous three seasons, reaching the same No. 8 ranking at which the team now sits, and very little of that winning felt like this.

Again, drawing big, sweeping conclusions might not be the way to go here ... but I can speak to my own affinity for these guys, and maybe some of that speaks to others as well.

We talk a lot amongst ourselves about what it means to be a Coug. We sometimes try to explain it to people, talking about being stuck together in the middle of nowhere for years, etc., but that doesn’t really work. I still don’t think my poor wife of 15 years quite understands it, hard as she tries. There’s a bond that we all share that’s about as close to family as you can get without being related. Give a stranger in a WSU hat a “GO COUGS!” and you’ll get a knowing smile and a “GO COUGS!” in return. Nothing more needs to be said, even though it very easily could.

This connection spans generations, largely because there are so few of us who call ourselves Cougs who didn’t actually spend our early adult years in Pullman. When I look across the stadium on a Saturday at the student section, I know they’re sitting right where I sat, going to classes in the same buildings I did, walking the same routes I traveled. (Even though it’s all a lot nicer now!) I could, quite literally, talk with any of those kids and find multiple shared experiences. (Whether they’d want to listen to some geezer reminisce is another story.)

And I think that’s what’s behind the connection with this team. These guys?

They’re the very best of us.

They’re what it means to be Cougs. We take care of each other when we’re hurting, we rally together in the hard times, and we occasionally do extraordinary things that seem colossally implausible. Sometimes, we win more football games than we’re supposed to. Sometimes, we raise tens of thousands of dollars for an upstart foundation in the name of a student-athlete who died, and sometimes we hug that boy’s mom again, and again, and again, even though we know that nothing can extinguish that pain. That’s what families do.

And I think this is why the students rush the field, over and over, Pac-12 fines be damned: The players down there are not The Players, the way they are in so many antiseptic stadiums around the Pac-12; they are us, and we are them, and doggone it, we just want to celebrate with each other. I mean, when do we ever say no to a good party?

We know it’s not always like this. Families go through rough times, too. The love affair we have with this particular group of players will inevitably wane. But that doesn’t make this moment any less special. And we’re all — fans and players — doing exactly what we should be doing to live it up for all that it’s worth.

Back in the Paul Wulff years, I had coworkers that would say, “Man, tough to be a Coug right now!” And I’d look back at them and say, “What are you talking about? Everyday is a great day to be a Coug.”

They’ll never understand. Go Cougs.


What We Liked!

NCAA Football: Washington State at Colorado Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

A thought exercise for you all:

The narrative for quite a while this season was, “WSU has a ridiculous offense with just enough defense.” What if that’s actually becoming, “WSU has a ridiculous offense and also a very good defense”?

What if the defense is actually peaking right now?

[pauses to let you consider]

Yes, I’m well aware that 38 points to Stanford was only three games ago. But Colorado, as banged up as the Buffs were, scored 34 points each of the previous two weeks before WSU held them to seven.

Maybe what’s happened the last two weeks is really just about the opponents. But I’d like to entertain the thought that all those young guys playing on that unit — and there are a ton of them — are just now catching up to their elder counterparts.

We’ll learn more on Saturday, that’s for sure.


Who Impressed

NCAA Football: Washington State at Colorado Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

I’m going to go with both James Williams and Max Borgi here. Their stat lines weren’t eye-popping — combined, they rushed 24 times for 98 yards and caught eight balls for 77 yards — but that doesn’t tell the whole story of their impact.

For as stellar of a job as the offensive line did in protecting Gardner Minshew II, it struggled to get much of a consistent push against Colorado’s defensive front. There were a couple of gashes in there (Borghi had a 20-yarder, Williams had an 11-yarder), but for the most part, each runner just had to stick his head into the line and get what he could. There were a couple of times where Williams turned a loss into a gain through individual effort.

They both played a huge role in keeping the chains moving on a day when Minshew wasn’t his sharpest self. And they proved once again that if you put the ball in their hands in space, they’re going to make someone look very stupid.


What Needs Work?

It gets tough to pick stuff out here. I guess I can drag special teams a little?

  • Oscar Draguicevich is an excellent punter. I have no idea why we’re dorking around with rugby kicks again, which resulted in a 32-yarder in the second quarter that went out of bounds at the Colorado 38. I’m convinced nobody outsmarts themselves more often than special teams coordinators.
  • I really, really hope long snapping doesn’t cost us another game.
  • On the plus side: We appear to finally have stopped with the pop-up kicks. Thank goodness.

Up Next!

NCAA Football: Oregon at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

BY GOD, THAT’S KHALIL TATE’S MUSIC!!!

I’m not sure there’s one player in the country who strikes more fear in the hearts of Coug fans than the Arizona Wildcats quarterback. To say he singlehandedly skewered WSU last season is a little unfair; J.J. Taylor had a lot to say about that, as well. But still ... the things he did on that field were the sorts of things that would cause us to ACCIDENTALLY I SWEAR kick the Xbox in the middle of a game. They just weren’t fair.

Maybe we have no reason to be afraid; Mike Leach would have you believe that what Tate (and Taylor) did last year were largely the result of a bad game plan. I’d sure like to believe that.

But man ... I can’t shake the feeling that this might actually be the toughest game left on the schedule this year.

Pac-12 After Dark. Hold on to your butts.