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The Monday After: We beat Oregon and this ship just might be turning around edition

Feeling nothing but happy feelings!

That, my friends, was most definitely good enough.

The most amazing thing? For a long time on Saturday, it didn't feel like it was going to be good enough to beat Oregon.

Not after the refs gifted the Ducks a go-ahead TD on a blown offensive pass interference call. Not after numerous missed tackles led to a 49-yard gain by Royce Freeman and, just a few plays later, another Freeman touchdown. Not after the Cougars lost their second fumble deep in Oregon territory with just 7:30 remaining and trailing by 10. Not when all Oregon needed was two yards on a third down to effectively end the game with under three minutes to go. Not when the team took a 10-yard sack on the first play of its final drive.

And yet time after time after time after time, the Cougars bowed their backs and refused to pack it in, bringing an effort and a desire that was absolutely good enough to earn a much-needed 45-38 victory in double overtime that they absolutely deserved.

It was some remarkable fortitude for a bunch of guys who had just lost on the road to a ranked team the week before in a game they thought they should have won.

To be honest, I didn't think they had it in them. Not because I have some axe to grind (although I'm sure some will accuse me of that), but because -- even independent of the team's documented issues this year -- these are 18- to 22-year-old young men and it's awfully hard to bring the kind of effort they displayed against Cal for consecutive weeks while traveling. Additionally, Oregon seemed to have fixed some things in a sound road defeat of a Colorado team that appeared to be about as good as WSU, and the Ducks were now playing in front of a rowdy Autzen crowd. The deck just seemed stacked against them.

Which makes what these Cougs pulled off on Saturday all the more impressive.

I mean, as you were sitting around pondering the future of the program on September 6, did you imagine you might read this kind of a quote from an Oregon player?

"They probably wanted it more," safety Tyree Robinson told The Oregonian. "The quarterback, he's been getting hit all game. When it came to crunch time he stood in the pocket and made some quarterback sneaks and the running back is running the ball well. We played a great game. I'm very proud of my defensive team and the offense — but you have to finish."

Get that: Oregon was the team that failed to finish. Not WSU. And this time, Mike Leach got to be proud of his team's effort in a game that ended with the Cougs victorious.

"We’ve been playing everybody so close and to the wire it’s about time we figured out a way to come out on top," Leach said after the game. "So I was proud of guys. Thought they were tough and hung in there and we out punched them in the end."

He expanded on that on Sunday.

"I don’t think it was complete but I think we played extremely hard the whole time," Leach said. "I thought we were tough until the end, I think we could have made it easier than we did but I thought all sides of the ball played hard. I thought we rose up, offense, defense and special teams."

And now, the Cougars have a tremendous opportunity to prove this is for real.

"WSU has turned a corner" seems to be a popular sentiment at the moment, and I can't blame anyone for badly wanting it to be so. But if you think back to a year ago, you might remember a sequence of games that also involved Oregon that looks remarkably similar to the one in which WSU currently finds itself:

  • With its back against the wall after a 1-2 start, WSU took on No. 2 Oregon in the fourth game of 2014. It was a spirited effort against the Ducks, but the Cougs ultimately came up a touchdown short, 38-31. Conclusion: "Things are looking up! I see improvement!"
  • The next week on the road at Utah, WSU fell behind by 17 points at halftime, only to come back and stun the Utes, 28-27. Conclusion: "The Cougars have turned a corner!"
  • WSU then returned home to take on Cal, a 3.5-point underdog considered by our fans to be an inferior opponent. Not only did the Cougs lose, it sent the team into a spiral it would be unable to pull out of for the remainder of the season. Conclusion: "Same old Cougs, I guess."

Heck, it seemed as if we'd turned a corner at the end of 2013 when WSU won two out of its final three games to get to a bowl. In short, we've seen this kind of apparent "corner turning" before, only to have it revealed as a mirage.

Now, coming off back-to-back strong efforts, which team will show up against Oregon State for homecoming on Saturday? Thankfully, this OSU team appears to be worse than Cal was a year ago -- the Cougars already are 8-point favorites in Vegas; since 2003, 125 teams have kicked off minus-8, and those teams have won nearly 70 percent of those games by an average of a touchdown. But that's of only mild comfort in the context of the loss to Portland State and the underwhelming victory against Wyoming. Of course this team has improved since then, but it's still cause for a bit of trepidation -- at least for me.

Is it asking too much for the Cougs to come out and soundly defeat the Beavers? If these guys have truly "turned a corner," I don't think so. It's homecoming. The crowd will be amped from this weekend's victory. Oregon State is reeling.

These guys have a golden opportunity to prove that these aren't the same old Cougs, that they really are maturing right before our eyes. It probably won't even take a perfect effort, since less-than-perfect efforts nearly beat Cal and did beat Oregon. There's little doubt they're more talented than the Beavers; they just need to bring the effort, energy and focus from the get-go, and the rest should take care of itself.


"We played a whole game to our potential the whole way through. I think that’s the most important thing to take from this game," receiver Gabe Marks said after the game. "We played a full game against Rutgers and we won. We played a full game tonight and we won. If we do that every night, we’re going to be a tough team to beat."

I would love nothing more than to continue to be proved wrong for not believing the program would make it past this point. But we need to see it for more than a couple of games, because more than a couple of games is what it's going to take for this team to finish the season where we all want it: In a bowl.

What We Liked

We've been waiting for 3.5 years to see the prototypical Air Raid rushing attack, and we finally saw it on Saturday. Jamal Morrow, Gerard Wicks and Keith Harrington all were incredible with the ball in their hands, piling up 176 yards on just 18 carries for an eye-popping 9.8 yards per attempt.

WSU actually gained more yards running the ball 18 times than Oregon gained throwing it 23. It was quintessential Air Raid -- throw it, throw it, throw it, and when the defense dares you to run with a five-man box, gash them. And gash them they did. Repeatedly.

Morrow was the unexpected hero, getting the ball late and doing wonders with it in his hands. He had a big 31-yard run on the drive that pulled WSU to within seven in the fourth quarter ...

(Thanks to rithy.meas for the GIFs!)

... and had another 14 yards on what would be the game-tying drive ...

... and picked up the crucial first down that extended the game in the first overtime.

I was super proud, by the way, that WSU ran it on that fourth down. The use of that word might sound a little weird, but Oregon had repeatedly put only five men in the box all game, WSU had repeatedly punished them, and the Ducks still did it on fourth down with the game on the line. Luke Falk rightly checked to a run, and while it was close, it provided the correct result thanks to Morrow's determination.

About the only fault to find with the performance was Harrington's pair of fumbles. They're concerning, for sure, and it seemed as though it found him a spot on the bench for the remainder of the game after his second one. That said, he brings an athletic element to the team that nobody else does, and I want him to continue to see the field -- he's averaging nearly eight yards every time he touches the ball, and it's worth it even if he puts it on the ground occasionally. He just needs to do it a bit less.

And lest I not single out Wicks, just know that he was awesome too: 64 yards on 7 carries.

"That’s just me, Gerard and Keith, we always want the ball in our hands, and I feel like that’s made an impact in our season," Morrow said.

I know the premise of the Air Raid is simply "spread the touches" whether they come by rush or reception, but I've come to believe that these guys should be getting at least 20 carries a game combined going forward for this offense to be the best it can be.

Honorable mentions: 3rd down defense, pass defense, 4th down offense

Who Impressed?

When the Cougars recruited four-star junior college transfer Shalom Luani, we all hoped he'd be an immediate partial solution to what ailed the Cougars in a secondary that was patently awful last season.

Mission accomplished!

Luani finished the game with 8 tackles, five of them solo and at least a few of them of the "wow" variety. At this point, he's reminding me a heck of a lot of the junior version of Deone Bucannon, and that is a very, very good thing.

Oh, and there also was this:

There are times when his inexperience still shows -- at one point, he went in for a kill shot against Royce Freeman and just bounced off before Freeman went on to rumble for many more yards -- but on the whole, Luani has been as good as we could have hoped for. He's tied for the team lead in solo tackles (25) and is third in overall tackles (35).

"Shalom, he's just all over the field," linebacker Jeremiah Allison said after the game. "People were calling me from back home, saying, ‘Who's No. 18? He's bringing it!' So Shalom, he's a very vital instrument to our defense."

Honorable Mentions: Luke Falk, Jamal Morrow, Gabe Marks, Dom Williams, Jeremiah Allison, Daniel Ekuale, Destiny Vaeao

What Needs to Improve

Tackling, tackling, tackling. The defense is substantially improved this season, but tackling remains an issue at times, and that was on full display against Oregon.

We'll grant that the Ducks are one of the more difficult teams to corral in this regard -- all of them are fast, and some of them are strong and fast -- but still, if you want to know how the Cougars gave up their highest yards per play of the season, this was the primary culprit.

Hey Coach Grinch - maybe put this one on loop in one of the defensive meetings?

That said, let's end on a positive: WSU held Oregon to just 6 conversions on 19 third and fourth down tries. That's how you survive giving up too many big plays without giving up 50 points.

Up Next!

As we mentioned at the top, the Cougars welcome Oregon State to Martin Stadium for Homecoming. The Beavers are 2-3, and unlike WSU, their season is trending downward. Aside from wins against FCS Weber State and San Jose State, OSU has lost to its three Power 5 opponents -- Michigan, Stanford and Arizona -- by a combined 121-38.

The fascinating thing from our perspective is that OSU has suffered all those beatdowns at the hands of teams that ran and ran and ran the ball -- they combined to accumulate more than 900 rushing yards combined, leading to 13 (!) rushing touchdowns allowed. That's obviously not WSU's M.O., and while those three teams have thrown the ball effectively against OSU, defending it off the running game is a bit different than defending the Air Raid.

Offensively, OSU is yet another run-heavy opponent -- seriously, how weird is it that WSU is going to go through half a season in 2015 and face five teams that run the ball more than they pass it? It's especially ironic after instituting a defense intended to be able to contain spreads. At any rate, the Beavers have been able to run the ball with a modicum of effectiveness, and they really struggle to throw it. If WSU can do a good job keeping OSU behind the chains, it should be a long afternoon for the Beavers.

The game kicks off at 1 p.m. and is on -- NO WAY! -- Pac-12 Network.