Not all losses are the same. Sure, they count the same in the standings. At the end of the season, when Washington State's final record is tallied, the Cal and Stanford games will be lumped into the right column. But even as those two games fall together under the "loss" category, they were vastly different.
Last week, I was confident WSU would beat Cal. I held that confidence all the way until a field goal sailed wide-right and the victory was no longer a possibility. The game against Stanford was wholly different.
I wrote my previews of Stanford, first with the offense. That gave me some hope. The Cardinal had been terrible offensively against Pac-12 teams and Notre Dame. I felt WSU's defense could arrive at a solid performance just by letting Stanford stumble over itself. And last night, that nearly happened as Washington State hung around until the 4th quarter thanks to Stanford's continued failures in the red zone.
But even as the Cougs pulled within 10-7 in the first half, then 17-10 and 24-17 in the second half, I never felt that they actually had a chance to win. At the end of my Stanford defensive preview, I said it would be a success if the Cougs scored three touchdowns -- even after they logged eight just six days prior against Cal.
And it was immediately evident by the "eye test" why the statistics bore out Stanford's defensive dominance. We knew about the Cardinal's dominant front seven, the way it relentlessly gets into the backfield. It did that again against WSU, knocking Connor Halliday over seemingly every time he dropped back to pass. But it wasn't the pressure that impressed me.
The Air Raid thrives on finding holes in the defense by stretching it horizontally as well as vertically. Receivers are given the ball in space, and yards after the catch are a crucial part of the equation. There were many times against Stanford where a Cougar receiver or running back caught the ball in space, or at least it seemed that way.
That's what impressed me the most about Stanford's defense and that's why I never felt WSU was a real threat to win the game. As soon as a receiver would catch that ball in what appeared to be a nice chunk of green, a defender would swarm and make contact before he could advance a yard or two, then finish a tackle with help from friends. It was remarkable how it happened over and over and over again to a group of receivers that have shredded opponents with yards-after-the-catch all season.
So even when WSU moved the ball, it was doing it slowly and methodically, not getting many gashes. There was one big gainer to Vince Mayle on the first touchdown drive, but that came after two fourth-down conversions (although I think reviews of those third down spots would have yielded at least one first down). Even with a 41-yard bomb to Mayle, WSU's first successful drive needed 11 plays to go 75 yards. That means the other 10 plays yielded just 34 yards.
WSU's other two scoring drives were more of the same. It took 14 plays to go just 42 yards for a field goal in the third quarter. It took 16 plays to go 75 yards for the final touchdown, and WSU again needed a fourth down to score.
That's not a sustainable way to move the ball, and it means any penalty or sack is an immediate drive killer. So even as WSU was just seven points down in the fourth, I had little faith it could squeeze out another long scoring drive. Stanford's defense was just too fast, too strong and too good.
Certainly not the same as the Cal loss, where even as the defense was shredded there was confidence that the offense could return the favor immediately. In the end, it makes the feeling after the losses so much different. After Cal, I couldn't stop thinking about a missed field goal or a potential missed review. I wasn't over the loss (admittedly, I am still probably not over it). But I was over the Stanford loss before the game ended, even before the game began.