In the wake of the Washington State Cougars losing to the No. 11 Oregon Ducks on the road at Autzen Stadium on a chip shot field goal as time expired on Saturday, and even as I know this is the reality of this season, I still have a hard time believing this when I see it:
Outside of being blown out by the Utah Utes — who are every bit as good as Oregon, and probably better — the Cougs have lost their other three games by a combined total of 10 points, with the decisive scores each coming on the opponents’ final drive in the final minute of the game. Gut punch after gut punch after gut punch.
What’s so amazingly frustrating about it is the juxtaposition with last year, when most of these close results broke our way. It feels like we’re enduring some sort of karmic payback for the football gods blessing us with Gardner Minshew II’s transfer and Peyton Pelluer’s sixth season.
Believe what you will about the role of luck, or randomness, or whatever you want to call it, but it truly would not have taken much for any of the three close losses to flip our way — literally one play in each one could have made the difference. Heck, it wouldn’t have even required the Cougs to be the ones to make a play; maybe a fumble bounces out of bounds against UCLA, or maybe an ASU lineman blows his assignment and 4th-and-2 is destroyed in the backfield, or maybe an Oregon kicker who had already missed a PAT and had missed two attempts this season from under 30 yards shanks another chip shot.
I realize that you’re counting on the other team to screw up in each of these scenarios. But the thing about college football that makes it so damn unpredictable is that teams screw up a lot. As we’ve talked about before, Alex Grinch built an entire defensive philosophy around the idea that the other team’s offense will eventually make a mistake, given enough opportunities.
None of those three teams made a mistake at a critical moment, though. Sometimes, it’s just like that. And somehow, we’re staring at a 1-4 conference record, even though I don’t think there’s one of us alive who thinks this is a last place Pac-12 team.
To the contrary, more than anything, Saturday’s loss reinforced for me how good this team actually is. The offense is elite and the defense has elevated itself to the “below average” status we’ve needed all along. I don’t think Mike Leach was blowing smoke when he said, “I thought we played really well. We didn’t play perfect. They’re a good team and, obviously, deserve some credit for that but I thought we played very well. I thought this was the best game we’ve played so far this year.”
Both units made a step forward. There were concerns that the offense could end up looking like it did in the loss to Utah with Boise State’s erstwhile defensive coordinator Andy Avalos now running the Ducks’ defense; if the Cougs were going to get exposed again, this game was going to be it. Instead, Anthony Gordon and Co. dropped 35 points and rolled up 446 yards and 6.9 yards per play — a trio of season highs allowed by Oregon.
The defense, meanwhile, wasn’t great, but did hold the Ducks to just 30 offensive points. There was an uptick in havoc plays — five tackles for loss, including three sacks — and the number of receivers running free down the field continued its downward trend. Justin Herbert threw for just 7.4 yards per play, a total that was greatly aided by a pair of passes that totaled 39 yards on the final drive — one of which was a simple screen for 24 yards in which the Cougs got caught in the wrong defense.
There’s still a ways to go. Oregon still logged 528 yards, their most against a Power 5 team, and the ol’ “who’s playing the Cougs? Someone on that offense will be player of the week” has struck again. Also, as we talked about in advance of the game, Oregon’s offense was likely to get a bunch of chunk plays because that’s what they do, and they definitely did. However, as a percentage, the explosive plays were again held to a manageable level, including just one back breaker (which was absolutely comical for how poorly it was defended, particularly at the second level). Outside of that play, the Cougs allowed 5.8 yards per play — an acceptable number when paired with its offense.
Which means these guys might be getting right for a stretch run that features a lot of winnable games. The next three are against what should be overmatched opponents — the California Golden Bears, Stanford Cardinal, and Oregon State Beavers — and the game in Berkeley completes a run where the Cougs have played just once in Pullman over nearly two calendar months, giving way to back-to-back home games. If I’m being honest, I probably didn’t give enough weight to the difficulty of this schedule (partially because I thought the Cougs would be a little better, partially because I thought the opponents would be a little worse), and being in Martin Stadium again can make the difference in close games (UCLA excepted).
Maybe some of that randomness can finally come back around to our side. After eight games, the underlying statistical metrics indicate this is a top-25ish team that just hasn’t had a lot of things go its way in close games. Playing whatever quarterback Cal is going to trot out there in a couple of weeks is a great place to start in order to give this season the finish to the narrative it deserves.
What We Liked: Continued Toughness
When WSU went down by 11 points early in the fourth quarter, I wondered if the aloud if the Cougs might fold. They’d fought hard, but they just surrendered another long Oregon touchdown drive on the heels of their own drive stalling out in the red zone ... again.
Rather than quit against a great opponent on the road, WSU fought back. The Cougs covered 78 yards in just over two minutes to pull back within five when Gordon found Brandon Arconado — himself a huge comeback story after his massive first quarter gaffe in the end zone — and then got within three with a 2-pointer.
The defense then held Oregon to just a field goal, meaning a touchdown would take the lead back for the first time since midway through the second quarter and the offense promptly ... went three and out. Ouch.
So of course the defense
finally rolled over totally did its job(!!) by putting Mario Cristobal in a situation where he somehow thought punting from WSU’s 33 was a great decision on 4th-and-6. With another shot at life — and 90 yards to go — the Cougs needed just eight plays to get in the end zone, culminated by a clutch fourth down TD catch by (who else?) Arconado.
There’s little question that doubt had crept in regarding this team’s resiliency. After UCLA and Utah, it seemed like maybe this year’s edition just didn’t have it. But Leach promised to get it right, and he and his staff did just that.
The result wasn’t what anyone wanted. But it’s comforting to know that the program’s foundation is still strong.
Who Impressed: Anthony Gordon
Ho-hum, just another 400-yard passing day — his sixth time in eight games. It can sometimes be so easy for us to fall into the same trap the media at large does and just say “well yeah he’s running the Air Raid, of course he’s going to pile up tons of yards.” But he was flat awesome against a defense that has been one of the best in the Pac-12.
I’m sure there are some fans who will fixate on the pick 6; there always are, and we’ve been over that before. But he bounced back from that with a TD drive at the end of the half, and then he bounced back from the three-and-out in the fourth quarter with a TD drive to take the lead with a minute to go, firing a dart to Arconado in the end zone on fourth down.
It was fair to wonder after Utah if Gordon was over his skis a little bit, more a product of the awful defenses WSU had faced in the non-conference than a product of his ability. It turns out that the Utes are the only team that’s been able to slow him down, as that was his only game under 7.0 yards per attempt this season. For context, Minshew was under that number in more than half his games last season; even if Gordon went under 7.0 ypa for the rest of the season, he’d still have fewer of those games than Minshew. Remarkable.
Gordon is leading the country in passing yards by a wide margin, and it’s not just a function of volume — his overall mark of 8.5 yards per attempt is 20th in the country. Let’s not lose sight of how incredible he has been.
What Needs Work: Defensive discipline
We cannot let this play go without some commentary. My god:
This 89 yard touchdown run by @oregonfootball is so well blocked. Reach on the front side, C takes his man further than he wants to go and RT sling shot! And when things are going well, the TE has a busted assignment that helps the run break loose!! pic.twitter.com/c5V83aKDj3— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) October 28, 2019
Now, Oregon receiver Juwan Johnson isn’t a little dude — he’s 6-foot-4 and 231 pounds. But I think it’s safe to say that he shouldn’t be able to take out three defenders in the secondary all by himself. But that’s exactly what he did, pancaking Bryce Beekman and Skyler Thomas at the same time with Daniel Isom actually chasing him all the way.
That play should have been a 10- or 15-yard gain. Instead, it went for 89 and was one of a handful of plays that made the difference.
Up Next! B-Y-E
Two Saturdays in the span of a month during football season to reconnect with your family? Well that’s just weird, er, I mean a gift to everyone!