As the Cougars prepare to square off with UCLA on the road on Saturday night, coach Mike Leach and the players have taken note of how the team came together this season to the point that it became bowl eligible with three games to go in the regular season.

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Mike Leach doesn’t like to use the word “maturity” to describe anything because, as he dryly told reporters this week, “It’s such a vague term; I used to get tagged by my parents and teachers as not having it all the time. So it’s not really my favorite word.”

Still, that might be the best word to describe what we’ve seen from his Washington State football team this year.

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As the Cougars (6-3 overall, 4-2 Pac-12) begin the final quarter of the regular season with a Saturday night road game against UCLA (7-2, 4-2), they’re already the surprise of the Pac-12.

WSU clinched bowl eligibility last week against Arizona State. Yet, talk to the players about their accomplishments to date, and you’ll notice they sound distinctly unimpressed.

To a man, the Cougars agree bowl eligibility was important, but that they’re playing for bigger things.

“Being bowl-eligible is nice, it’s nice to get that sixth win, but we’re definitely not satisfied. It’s nice but it’s not our final goal,” said offensive guard Eduardo Middleton.

And therein lies the first clue as to why this WSU team is different from the ones that have worn the crimson and gray in recent years.

“We had a message when we started recruiting the kids when we got here: Expect to win,” said offensive-line coach Clay McGuire, who’s been with Leach since he was first hired at WSU. “The hardest thing was that when we got here, it was a ‘play close, moral victories’ kind of thing. It’s not one of those things where the kids would really go out there and expect to compete.”

Slowly but steadily, Leach has built a squad of believers. Leach points to his team’s “ability to not panic” and to “stay focused” as elements of its maturity. Also, this team doesn’t point fingers, Leach says. The players seem to have embraced the fact that they’re all fighting for the same cause.

But there’s another factor at play here: locker-room chemistry. It might be the one intangible all winning teams have that is most difficult for coaches to cultivate — perhaps because it’s usually something that’s out of their control.

Locker-room chemistry begins with the players, and for the Cougars this year, the roots of the relationships they currently share were planted sometime late last season.

Senior receiver Dom Williams says the biggest difference he’s noticed between the state of the program during his freshman year in 2011 and the way it is now is how close the guys are.

“We all hang out with each other now,” Williams said. “In the past years, I’d be with Marquess (Wilson) and the wide-receivers group. Now I hang out with Gunnar (Eklund), we listen to country music and a little bit of techno, and I hang out with our defensive line, all the Polynesian boys. As a collective whole, we’re a lot stronger.”

The Cougars’ current leadership has a lot to do with that. Eklund and linebacker Jeremiah Allison are among those who took the initiative to bring the locker room closer together, organizing movie nights and bowling trips over the last year. In the summer, guys also pointed to quarterback Luke Falk as someone who went out of his way to rally the team around a united cause.

All those efforts have led directly to the success this season, Leach said.

“I think the offseason contributed to it a great deal, and I also think, without naming names, that we have a far less selfish locker room (this year),” Leach said. “It’s one where everyone is pulling for one another, and pulling in the same direction. It’s just a more focused group, where it’s all about a unit.”