Almost a month after WSU dropped to 0-2 and was dismissed from most postseason prognostications, the Cougars are alive in the Pac-12 championship race again.
If the Game 6 version of the Washington State Cougars had a time machine that could take them back to Game 1 of the season, they’d want to go back in time and start over.
“I wish we could play those games again. They’d be different,” said senior receiver Gabe Marks, referring to the Cougars’ losses to Eastern Washington and Boise State that resulted in their 0-2 start this year.
But “that’s what happens. You gotta be ready when the season starts,” Marks said.
Almost a month after WSU dropped to 0-2, was dismissed from most postseason prognostications, and had head coach Mike Leach publicly question his team’s toughness, the Cougars are alive in the Pac-12 championship race again.
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WSU sits behind its arch-rival UW atop the Pac-12 North standings – the only two teams remaining undefeated in conference play.
What’s so different now?
“Everyone is just focusing on doing their job, and we’re focused on taking it one play at a time,” said cornerback Darrien Molton.
It sounds so cliché, but that was exactly the sort of back-to-basics fix WSU had to make to get back on track.
“I think position by position, sometimes you get ahead of yourself, and the most important thing is to do your job with the guys around you,” Leach said. “If everybody does that simultaneously, it’s very strong and very powerful.”
The Cougars (3-2 overall, 2-0 Pac-12) who will take on UCLA (3-3, 1-2) in Pullman this weekend say they have benefitted from lessons learned over the first two weeks and they believe they’re stronger for it now.
“The team had to learn that the things you do from year to year don’t carry over,” Marks said. “Chemistry carries over, but you’ve still gotta go out and do it again.
“I feel like we unintentionally got a little content and it carried over into the season opener.”
Offensive lineman Eduardo Middleton says the team wasn’t complacent, but concedes that they might have needed “a little reality check” to jolt them into action this season.
Now, it appears, the Cougars are right where they want to be, and the Eagles and Broncos get kudos for helping WSU get here because when they played the Cougars, “we didn’t really have our identity yet the way we thought we did, and they exposed some of the things we didn’t really know about ourselves,” Marks said. “So I guess thank you to them then.”
The Cougars have now found an identity, which Marks characterizes as “together” and “calm.”
“It’s everything it was last year, the same bond,” Marks said.
The team has steadied, and they’re winning games in more dominant, methodical fashion in comparison to the heart-attack inducing style they played with last year, when Luke Falk led them to four fourth-quarter comeback wins, and they lost a fifth game (against Stanford) on a last-ditch field goal.
On average, WSU has outscored its last three opponents 49.6 to 18, and the Cougars’ offensive display against Stanford marked their most complete performance of the season.
These Cougs are finally learning to put teams away, a skill that takes a different kind of discipline.
“Everybody can focus in a little when you’re down,” Leach said. “Having the discipline to focus when you’re up, I thought we cam a ways the last two games in regard to that.”
“We’re learning to keep the lead and play off each other,” Middleton said.