As I slumped in my seat at Martin Stadium after Erik Powell's potentially game-winning field goal drifted wide of the right goal post to cement a 30-28 loss to the No. 8 Stanford Cardinal, these guys popped into my head:
The connection might not seem obvious -- and, of course, I run the risk of thoroughly confusing the younger members of our audience -- but in the early years of Saturday Night Live, the cast was known as the Not Ready For Prime Time Players. In retrospect, it was one of the great collections of actors and comedians that television has ever seen: John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtain, Harry Shearer, and others.
But in the moment, they were just a collection of comic misfits. There was a reason they weren't yet ready for prime time. While the talent was undeniable and there were absolute moments of brilliance (often the result of pushing the boundaries of accepted humor conventions), there were plenty of moments of "huh?" (also often the result of pushing the boundaries of accepted humor conventions).
I feel like that's basically where WSU football finds itself at the moment. This is a good team with undeniable talent, capable of generating amazing moments that take your breath away:
But it's also an inexperienced team that hasn't yet found the ceiling of what it's going to be in the future. It's not quite capable of doing all the little things at the margins that are required to be truly great.
I see a number of fans lamenting the missed opportunity this game presented, what with four winnable games remaining on the schedule. If that last field goal goes in ... if Dom Williams hauls in that pass ... if John Thompson gets just a piece of the defender ... if that actually and been called a fumble ... if that actually had been an interception ... any of these things might have tilted the result in WSU's favor.
None of those plays were terribly egregious; there was no "crap the bed" feeling to this loss, a la Cal or Portland State. It's just that they couldn't quite make enough of the plays at the margins to get them over the top.
Some of that is Stanford being very, very good. Teams that are very, very good make those plays at the margins. How many teams have a corner that can diagnose a screen and not just elude a guy that has been called one of the best blockers on the team, but also get far enough upfield to snag the interception? Plays like that are part of what makes Stanford a top 10 team.
Some of that is WSU's inexperience. I intentionally didn't call it "youth," as that has become a tired excuse over the last decade. But inexperience is a real thing, and as time goes by, Luke Falk won't make that ill-advised throw to the sideline that Quenton Meeks easily undercuts. A year from now, Shalom Luani isn't going to bite on a fake while Kevin Hogan runs behind him, and he's not going to also take a bad angle and whiff on a tackle on that same QB when he's basically the only guy between his man and the end zone.
Which is why I don't think the takeaway should be WSU's missed opportunity. I'm not saying it wasn't -- it clearly was. And I'm not saying you're wrong if you're pretty upset today, particularly with regards to the officiating gaffes, for which there is zero excuse.
However, what should be striking to everyone is just how little difference there is between WSU and a team of the quality of Stanford at this point. After a narrow win over Oregon without its starting QB, after beating up on hapless Oregon State, and after defeating an Arizona team that features a defense so bad that even Washington was able to score on it, many outsiders wondered how good WSU really was. Heck, I wasn't even sure, even though I had a good feeling.
Now we know. This team is pretty dang good.
And there's no reason at this point to think they won't continue to be. I know we're all always waiting for the other shoe to drop, because that's what the last decade of football at WSU has done to us, but it's probably time to stop. These guys have earned that much by continually exceeding the expectations others have placed on them.
Of course, their expectations and everyone else's expectations don't seem to be aligning often at this point. As I sat there after the game thinking, "I can't even be mad," these guys were already salty as heck in the postgame.
"We lost," Gabe Marks said. "I don’t want anyone praising anyone right now. So don’t ask us questions about who’s praising who. We should have won."
Unlike most of the teams of the past decade, these guys have not only tasted success, they have a thirst for more of it. They'll be obsessing over those little plays at the margins, because they don't want to just hang around Stanford -- they want to prove they're better than Stanford.
And after Saturday night, I'm not sure I'd argue with them on that. They did to the Cardinal what nobody else had even come close to doing in the last month and a half.
The inexperience that proved to be the difference on Saturday is shrinking by the week. And now they've got a chance to take another big step forward in front of a raucous, sold out, Dad's Weekend crowd by getting bowl eligible through stepping on the throat of a team that is reeling.
The last time I remember feeling like this after a football game was when my favorite pro team, the Seattle Seahawks, lost in the playoffs on the road to the Atlanta Falcons in 2013. Fans were upset at the missed opportunity by a team that legitimately looked like it could win a Super Bowl.
Me? I couldn't stop smiling. Because I knew the best was yet to come.
What We Liked
The biggest question going into the game wasn't whether WSU would be able to move the ball and score some points -- we figured they would, and they did, even if it wasn't another 45-point outburst, which I don't think anyone really expected -- it was whether WSU could contain Stanford's explosive offense.
The 30 points allowed was the fewest scored by Stanford since the Cardinal's season-opening loss to Northwestern, and the 5.3 yards per play also was their fewest since that game -- by a wide margin. Put simply, the Cougars limited the Cardinal in a way they had not been limited in nearly two months. And they did it in a way that nobody had been able to do: By punching Stanford right back in the mouth.
It's not possible for me to heap enough praise on the defense. When the offense sputtered out of the gate, posting minus-4 yards in the first quarter, the defense kept the Cougars in the game. Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch had them playing fast and loose with a game plan that involved aggressively attacking gaps, and they absolutely refused to be bullied by team that's used to pushing everyone around.
And it started up front. Robert Barber and Daniel Ekuale were absolute rocks in the middle of the line, while Destiny Vaeao, Darryl Paulo and Hercules Mata'afa were in the backfield all day.
And all of those guys made some ridiculously athletic plays. Vaeao strip-sacked Hogan in the first quarter for WSU's first turnover. Paulo picked up a sack when he was on top of Hogan before the QB could even set his feet to throw a simple screen. Barber sacked Hogan after a stunt. (Robert Barber is 307 pounds.) And Ekuale stoned a running back at the goal line after shedding a block and then exploding into the backfield -- I mean, he looked like a danged linebacker with his footwork.*
*Side note: Pay Joe Salave'a all the money.
The play of those guys occupying blockers allowed Peyton Pelluer, Jeremiah Allison Parker Henry and Shalom Luani to just fly around and destroy people. Those four racked up 31 tackles.
This wasn't some fluke of scheme. WSU's talent went toe-to-toe with Stanford and didn't even remotely pale by comparison.
Of course, it was the aggressiveness that Stanford eventually used against WSU to get Hogan loose, and David Shaw deserves a ton of credit for exploiting it. But the game plan darn near worked out, and after watching Mike Breske's defenses generally play with tentativeness and timidity, these guys are an absolute breath of fresh air. They seem to have taken on the personalities of Grinch and Salave'a** and Roy Manning. Maybe defense is about to be fun again on the Palouse.
**No really. Pay him whatever.
What Else We Liked
We often tease about #specialforces, but kudos to Eric Mele and the Cougs for having a sound plan for limiting McCaffrey's touches. Yeah, they gave up a bunch of field position, but guess what? He didn't house one. That's a win in my book.
Kicking was such a danged disaster last season, and Erik Powell had himself one heck of a day on Saturday. The missed kick at the gun was tremendously disappointing, but WSU isn't even in that position if he doesn't hit the first five -- two of them from 40-plus.
Unfortunately, if you send out a kicker six times, chances are pretty good he's going to miss one, as even the best kickers only make about 85 percent of their kicks. That's pretty much exactly what Powell did ... just with bad timing on the one miss.
Hopefully, making kicks in the biggest moments becomes a regular part of his arsenal.
Who Else Impressed?
A game such as this demands more recognition. Remember how much we were looking forward to the reign of Isaac Dotson Mega Enforcer? Parker Henry has been playing out of his danged mind.
In addition to intercepting
two a pass es and taking one of them to the house, Henry tied for the team lead with 10 tackles -- one of which involved Henry standing up Christian McCaffrey on a solo stop at the goal line to make sure Stanford would elect to kick a field goal with just under two minutes to go. Had WSU won and the refs not inexplicably reversed the pick six, Henry very likely would have been the Pac-12 defensive player of the week.
I haven't heard Grinch talk a lot about his target for production from the nickel, but I have to imagine this is pretty much exactly what he would want: A guy who is equally adept providing run support and running with receivers. That it's coming from a guy who started out as a walk-on running back makes it that much cooler.
Mark my words: Henry's doing a great job, but Grinch is going to eventually recruit someone to that position who is going to become a star because of the opportunities presented by Grinch's scheme.
Who ELSE Impressed?
A lot was made pregame about the unsold tickets (which I honestly didn't think was that big of a deal, given the confluence of factors - we've seen far worse turnouts under similar conditions), but the student section was nearly full, and the rest of the stadium was in full throat.
Better yet, in a game where WSU needed every edge it could get, the crowd came with the kind of energy that has been missing all too often, and -- most importantly -- sustained it until the bitter end.
I can't wait for this weekend. The game will be sold out (or something very close to it), and it's going to be bananas.
The fans and the team are falling in love with each other. This is fun.
What Needs To Improve
I don't think it actually ever will, but maybe it'll make me feel better to complain? I dunno. I got to watch the broadcast today for the first time, and I have no earthly idea how Henry's pick six was overturned.
Did the ball probably hit the ground? Sure. Was the video evidence so convincing that the referees had no choice but to overturn it? Not even close. Pac-12 Vice President of Officiating David Coleman said the "low end zone view ... confirmed that the ball was on the ground and not possessed by the receiver." Here is that view:
Would the Cougars have won if that was a TD? Who knows. Butterfly effect and all that, and I'm truly not one to blame officials -- too many variables in a game, and even after all that, WSU had a chance to win with a field goal. They didn't lose the game because of the officials.
But at a moment in the game when the offense was struggling -- and in a game where points were sure to be at a premium -- taking 7 points off the board was a pretty major decision to make when I have no idea how someone could say definitively that the receiver's fingers weren't under the ball.
Like the rest of you, I do think they also got the fumble wrong. But you know what? I can see how they looked at that video and thought, "Actually, we can't tell for sure -- it's just not clear enough to overturn the ruling on the field." What angers me is that there's no rhyme or reason to what's being done. It simply shouldn't be this hard to figure out and understand the correct call, even if football's rulebook is akin to the U.S. tax code.
Everyone deserves better, especially the players.
Arizona State comes to Martin Stadium for Dad's Weekend fresh off a triple overtime loss to Oregon at home. Like a lot of teams the Cougars have faced, the Sun Devils sport a pretty good offense and a suspect defense.
There will be points to be had. There's no doubt in my mind that WSU is the better team and playing better football than ASU. Let's prove it.
Kickoff is at 12:30 p.m., with the game to be broadcast on Fox Sports 1.