PULLMAN — Washington State’s football team hasn’t often been favored in conference games over the past half-decade, but the oddsmakers have the Cougars winning by the slim margin of 1½ points in their matchup Saturday against Oregon State.
If the Cougars can turn the bookies into prophets by winning at home, they’ll be 5-2 and will have won more games than any WSU team since 2007.
More significantly, the Cougars will be just a single victory away from qualifying for a bowl game, a symbolic threshold that denotes a team that has broken the cycle of perennial rebuilding and is ready for contention.
The Cougars insist that none of that matters.
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“I haven’t really thought about it,” safety Deone Bucannon said. “It is crazy, but our coaches and our teammates, we just look at it as one game at a time. We don’t look at everything, we just focus on one week and getting better each day.”
Bucannon’s words are reflections of the “one-week-at-a-time” mantra of his coaches.
“I feel like we’ve got to improve this week, and win one game a week. We’ve got to prepare and play the best we can against Oregon State. It’s kind of a repetitious process,” coach Mike Leach said dryly.
But whether WSU’s players and coaches are living in denial, or merely paying lip service to the unspoken football code of humility expressed through well-worn axioms, in some part of their brains they must know what this game would mean for their chances at a bowl game. And what a bowl game would mean for the growth of this program.
Beating the Beavers carries large implications in its own right. OSU is a rival in the Pacific Northwest, and is similar to WSU culturally. The schools share an academic footprint. They attract the same people, and often go head-to-head for recruits.
But the joy of bragging rights over the Beavers pales to the significance of WSU playing in its first bowl game since the 2003 season.
Qualifying for the postseason means weeks of more coach-supervised practices for the team’s younger players to prepare for next year. It means a nationally televised game to market the program to future recruits and to fans who feel disconnected from the program after a decade of losing seasons. It means a reward for the players currently on the roster, and reassurance their toil and sweat is paying off.
That validation is evident to kicker Andrew Furney, who breaks the facade momentarily before falling back into the party line. As a senior, Furney has seen the good times and the bad. This is Furney’s last chance at a winning season, a fact of which he is acutely aware.
“Great, great start to the season toward where we want to go: Obviously, a bowl game, and to keep winning,” Furney said. “I can even say it’s the most wins I’ve had here and there’s six games left. But, obviously we’ve got to go one game at a time. We can’t look at the bowl or whatever.”
However far this winning path might lead the Cougars, a victory over OSU on Saturday night will be of paramount importance.