The Cougars are one of six teams nationally with a win streak of seven games or more. But their final three-game gauntlet won't be easy: Cal, No. 16 Colorado and No. 4 Washington await.
Oh, what a difference two months can make.
In the wee hours of Sept. 11, Washington State arrived home in Pullman fresh off a three-point loss to Boise State, 0-2 on the season, with head coach Mike Leach irate and – perhaps – mentally formulating the now-infamous speech that he would unleash the next day questioning the Cougars’ toughness and likening his squad to a junior college softball team.
This week, as the nation turns its attention to Election Day, the resurgent Cougars sit tied with their arch-rivals Washington for first place in the Pac-12 North, with a gleaming 6-0 record in conference play.
As they prepare to face Cal, the 23rd ranked Cougars (7-2, 6-0) are one of only six FBS football teams nationally that can tout a win streak of seven or more games at this point of the season.
The fan base is buzzing, the hype is reaching fever pitch, and the Cougars are ready to embrace the challenge that comes with increased expectations.
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“The sky’s the limit for us,” said senior right tackle Cole Madison, who won the most recent Bone Award that goes to WSU’s best offensive lineman every week. “We could win out, we could lose out. But we are gonna win out and that’s our plan.”
The team isn’t at all surprised by how well it’s rebounded after the 0-2 start, says senior receiver Gabe Marks.
“Even when we were 0-2, we didn’t lose any self-belief in ourselves,” Marks said Monday. “We lost belief in (the media) because (the media) lost belief in us. We all knew that we were going to be good. It’s just, a lot of people jumped off the wagon real quick. Which is OK. 0-2, fans will be fans.”
It’s been more than a decade since the Cougars opened November with aspirations beyond clinching a bowl bid – any bowl bid. But the stakes are higher now than they’ve been in many years.
Despite their losses to Eastern Washington and Boise State – now ranked 24th national – the Cougars are very much in the mix for the Pac-12 North championship, and have an outside shot at playing in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 2002.
But their toughest challenges of the season are still to come. The Cougars’ final three games are against a Cal (4-5, 2-4) team they haven’t beaten since 2013, a surprising 16th-ranked Colorado squad that leads the Pac-12 South, and what’s shaping up to be an showdown against the undefeated No. 4 Huskies in the Apple Cup in Pullman the day after Thanksgiving.
Run the table and the Cougs will win their first Pac-12 North championship, boast a 10-2 record, and stand a great chance of playing in the Rose Bowl for only the fifth time in program history. Finish 0-3, and they’ll end the season 7-5, disappointed at what could have been.
It’s a high stakes race that WSU isn’t accustomed to being part of this late in the year, and the Cougars are loving every minute of it.
“Being able to talk about (the championship race) right now is definitely what I came back for,” said Marks, who opted to return to WSU for his senior season instead of leaving early for the NFL. “I knew this team had the ability to be at this point right now, and it’s really cool to be able to play up, play big games at the end of the year.
“It’s fun to be practicing to be in meaningful games in November. We’re all in uncharted waters. We’re trying to keep going with that.”
For now, however, WSU has its sights firmly set on Cal, and nothing beyond.
The Bear Raid vs. the Air Raid has been an entertaining affair in the last three years. The 2014 edition featured 119 total points, a new NCAA passing yardage record and heartbreaking disappointment for WSU at the end. The 2015 edition saw Cal rally from a two-touchdown deficit to surge past WSU for a 34-28 win.
“Whenever us and Cal gets together, it’s always gonna be a helluva deal. There’s gonna be points scored. It’s inevitable. It’s a heavyweight showdown,” Marks said. “It’s always fun to get out there and play those guys.”