As they creep up in the rankings, the Cougars say they've learned to handle winning.
Washington State may be 6-0 and ranked eighth nationally, but, for now, the Cougars are determined to live in their own fantasy world where they have a 0-0 record and are still the underdog of the Pac-12.
As the Cougars’ prepare to travel to Cal (3-3 overall, 0-3 Pac-12) on a short week, coaches say the team has handled its recent success well.
Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch used the term “eerie” in interviews with reporters on Sunday night to describe the players’ businesslike response to their win over Oregon last week, and how surprisingly focused the team is on its next game.
Quarterback Luke Falk said the team appears to have erased the Oregon win from its collective memory bank faster than he’s ever seen.
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“I think we’re pretty locked in,” Falk said. “I think we enjoyed he win, but knew it was a short week and that we have to take care of business.”
“That’s just how our team is,” said senior safety Robert Taylor. “We go in there, we get our job done and it’s over – 6-0 isn’t what we want to be. We want to be better each day. Right now we’re 0-0, and we’ve got to keep winning one game a week.”
Sure, many teams use the same sort of rhetoric. But as the Cougars spout that stuff this year, they’ve been backing it up with their play.
This team is noticeably more emotionally mature than the one that stumbled out the gates 0-2 last season because it was still riding on the wave of the breakthrough 9-4 season WSU put together in 2015.
Leach says this team’s collective maturity is a big reason behind its ability to focus and stay even-keeled regardless of success, but experience also plays into it The Cougars have learned some lessons from 2016, when they started slow, put together an 8-0 streak, then finished with a 0-3 whimper.
In 2016, “we had an awful lot of young guys out there who’d never had an offseason, and I’m sure it helped,” Leach said, when asked if last season taught his team how to manage success. “I’m sure it’s contributed some. A lot of the freshmen who are playing, I thought ran out of gas the later we got in the season.”
This year, the Cougars can’t afford for their freshmen to run out of gas. Especially because they’ve starting counting on some of these freshmen as attrition takes its toll. Jahad Woods and Justus Rogers had to step into the fray at linebacker last week, and it’s likely that they’ll both see their roles increase in the coming weeks depending on whether the injured Isaac Dotson is able to return.
On offense, Jamire Calvin, a true freshman, and Renard Bell, a redshirt freshmen, have both become key contributors. Bell is second on the team with 374 receiving yards on 20 receptions, while Calvin has 153 yards on 17 catches.
Rush linebacker Dylan Hanser says the team’s large corps of senior leaders have been integral in keeping everyone focused.
“It definitely starts with the seniors, going around the locker room saying, ‘Let’s go. Be locked in, ready to play,’” Hanser said. “It’s just a domino effect. When a couple guys are ready to play, it carries over to everybody.”
It doesn’t matter that WSU is favored to beat Cal by more than two touchdowns, “we still want to go in showing like we have something to prove,” Hanser said. “We take every game the same. Anyone can be beaten on any given day. Look at Iowa State and Oklahoma last week.”