Washington State’s comeback win at Rutgers paved the way for a stunning victory over Oregon. Despite recent history, the Cougars are dreaming big again.
Thirteen seconds. That’s how close it was.
Thirteen seconds were all that separated the Cougars from shooting to the top of the American Punchline poll.
Washington State had just lost to Portland State the week before. It was on the cusp of falling to a team nicknamed the Scarlet Knights. Then, with 13 seconds left in the game, quarterback Luke Falk hit River Cracraft on an 8-yard touchdown pass to give WSU a 37-34 road win over Rutgers.
Cougars coach Mike Leach said that was the moment his team realized what was possible. It was the instant that turned the comatose Cougs into a group that led Cal in the second half, shocked Oregon in Eugene, and sits bowl-game-bound, according to ESPN’s latest projections.
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On the surface, the coast looks clear to finally get excited about Wazzu football — but you get the feeling most fans will proceed with caution.
After all, they know what’s possible, too.
Washington State’s next opponent is Oregon State, and really, there could be no more appropriate foe. The Beavers are 2-3 overall, 0-2 in the Pac-12, and are coming off a 44-7 loss to Arizona.
A novice fan of the Cougars might look beyond this game — perhaps to the matchup with Arizona in two Saturdays or with Stanford in three. But longtime Wazzu fans know better. They know how quickly glee can become grief.
This, you see, isn’t the first time it looked as if Washington State had cleared a hurdle in its quest to regain relevance. In 2013, the Cougars beat 25th-ranked USC in September and went on to reach their first bowl game in 10 years.
What ensued was a 48-45 loss to Colorado State in the New Mexico Bowl that served as the quintessential Washington State defeat. To “Coug it” is the most rankling phrase you can utter in the WSU athletic department, but most WSU supporters brace for disaster before they anticipate joy. That’s from more than a decade’s worth of futility.
But this year’s players have a message for their forlorn fans: Good times are about to roll up on the Palouse.
“I think we’re capable of a lot of things. We’re capable of making it to the Pac-12 championship and playing with the best of them,” Cougars linebacker Peyton Pelluer said. “A lot of (the Oregon game) was showing people what WSU can do.”
Current Washington State players may not have felt the enduring heartache that older alumni have, but they are still aware of the cloud that hangs over their program. And they sure as hell didn’t come to Pullman just to snag a scholarship and play a little ball with their buddies.
These are elite athletes. Competitive athletes. Athletes with pride and dignity and a growing intolerance toward overstuffed “L” columns.
So they decided to do something about it.
“We were just tired of losing,” Cougars receiver Gabe Marks said. “A lot of us come from winning programs in high school, and none of us are accustomed to losing at anything. The years we’ve been here have been tough. We’ve finally been given the reins to the program and are going to start winning some games.”
Depending on how you interpret the fluid levels of the glass, the Cougars are a few plays from being either 5-0 or 1-4. You can say they gave away the Portland State game and got too cute on the fake punt vs. Cal — just as you can contend that the wins over Rutgers and Oregon came via help from the heavens.
But you can’t say that they’ve been an easy out for any team they’ve played. You can’t say they haven’t bounced back from losses with champion-like resolve. You can’t say that the 396.4 passing yards they’ve thrown per game — good for fourth in the nation — doesn’t elevate opposing coaches’ pulse rates.
You also can’t say they’ve come anywhere close to achieving their goals.
“This doesn’t complete or finish anything. You’re in a constant battle with yourself,” Leach said. “There is no room for relaxation.”
No, there isn’t. WSU has to keep focused or risk stepping backward once again. Doesn’t mean there isn’t potential there, though.
Cougars fans may be trained to look away from the field or TV screen at any given moment. But through five games, their team has given them a reason to look in the first place.