Buoyed by a newfound rushing attack and a big play defense, Washington State has shown that it can hang with, and defeat, the best teams the Pac-12 can throw at them.
PULLMAN — Let us now give proper respect to the other rampaging Pac-12 team in our midst – or, to be more accurate on a gloomy, gloppy Saturday night in the Palouse, in our mist.
While the Huskies storm the college football world, up front and conspicuous at No. 5 in the rankings, Washington State is stealthily on a parallel path to a potential Apple Cup showdown for the ages.
Whoa, now. Sorry. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, which happens to be one of coach Mike Leach’s primary messages to his team, one they’ve clearly latched onto. The Cougars haven’t always been what they appear to be – and right now, they appear to be the second-best team in the conference, and the No. 1 threat to the Huskies’ grandest dreams.
That’s the only conclusion after yet another WSU victory, 27-21 over UCLA at Martin Stadium. This wasn’t the rout that the Cougars appeared to be headed for, but hanging on under some weird conditions just showed the growth of a team that many wrote off almost instantly this season.
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Such a rosy outlook was hard to imagine when WSU dropped its opener to Eastern Washington, fell to Boise State in their second game, and was castigated by Leach in biting fashion. With characteristic political incorrectness, he compared the Cougars to a junior college softball team and harrumphed, “We don’t like to run and hit, and this is a game for running and hitting.”
But just as happened last year, when WSU dropped its season opener to Portland State and its Pac-12 opener to Cal, then ran off six wins in seven games, the Cougars have responded magnificently to Leach’s cajoling.
The victory over UCLA was their fourth in a row, and their third straight over a Pac-12 blueblood. The Huskies earned deserved accolades for crushing Stanford and Oregon in back-to-back weeks. The Cougars accomplished the same double, in reverse order (by a 93-49 margin), and followed by persevering over a depleted UCLA team.
They are now running, and hitting, with purpose.
“I think we’re a more violent, physical football team right now,” quarterback Luke Falk said, adding, “I truly don’t believe we’ve played our best game yet.”
You could argue that none of those teams are what they use to be, for various reasons, and that UCLA, in particular, was without standout quarterback Josh Rosen on a night when the harsh elements made for inhospitable conditions for his backup, Mike Fafaul.
But that doesn’t mitigate the fact that WSU looks like a team to be reckoned with. The previously one-dimensional Cougars – with that dimension being a relentless, frenetic pass attack, unsupported by much of a run game and often undermined by a porous defense – have morphed into something quite different. And much more formidable.
They have a three-headed rushing monster in the form of Gerard Wicks, James Williams and Jamal Morrow. All three of WSU’s touchdowns against the Bruins were on the ground, two by Wicks and one by Morrow, as Falk failed to throw a TD pass for the first time in his career.
And the Washington State defense is the true revelation in the Palouse. They stiffened when they needed to, although the Cougars lamented what they felt was a letdown in the fourth quarter that allowed UCLA to get back in it.
Ultimately, the Cougars had to grind this one out, but that’s what good teams do – and something at which the Cougars have not always excelled. There’s even a phrase for it, which every WSU supporter loathes. But this time, you could say UCLA bruined it, fumbling the ball away on their first play after taking over on their 30, trailing by just six with 2:43 to play.
UCLA had one last-ditch opportunity after a perfect WSU pooch punt gave the Bruins the ball at their 2 with 49 seconds left. But an interception by Charleston White cinched the Cougar victory.
“I think this was too close,’’ said linebacker Peyton Pelleur. “I think we could have put more points on them, and could have held them to fewer points.”
That the Cougars are nitpicking victories is a sure sign of progress, and an indication that Leach’s bloodletting after the Boise State loss hit home.
“Coach Leach on our bye week was hammering us on doing your job, not trying to do too much,’’ center Riley Sorenson said. “We were pressing because we had all this preseason hype on ‘oh, we’re gonna be the national dark horse.’ He took that week to just build things up again. It’s all paid off.”
“Coach put it on us every week,’’ Wicks added. “Really cranked it up on us. We decided to follow him and play as a team.”
Such a productive reaction might have eluded earlier Cougar teams, as Sorenson, a senior, recognized.
“The first couple years, I don’t think the guys were recruited by Leach, but most of the guys Leach recruits can respond to adversity well, respond to tough love,’’ he said. “They know it’s not personal. He’s just trying to make us the best players we can be.”
And after this latest victory, Leach had no need for vitriol, only gentle praise.
“We work really hard, play really hard. We’re a focused, competitive group,’’ he said. “I felt like we should have finished better but I thought we had a lot of good stuff in between to make all this happen.”
The good stuff is starting to pile up for the Cougars, the other state team making big noise.