Saturday’s 30-28 loss to Stanford hurt so much because the Cougars have grown to the point where they are relevant and the stakes are higher.

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They began the season as a punchline, a cautionary tale. Their coach was on the endangered list and their season already seemingly lost after a brutal opening defeat to Portland State.

But Washington State pulled itself back into improbable relevancy, to the point that Saturday’s 30-28 loss at Martin Stadium meant something more than just another game slipping away late.

It meant that a huge opportunity for a program-altering win had slipped away, in the most heartbreaking fashion. Had the Cougars beaten eighth-ranked Stanford, it would have been their most meaningful victory in a decade, putting WSU back in the center of the college football map and coach Mike Leach right back into the mad-genius realm he occupied at Texas Tech.

But instead, they watched Erik Powell’s 43-yard field goal sail wide right as time expired. Powell had nailed five previous field goals to tie a school record, including two longer than that fateful attempt. But when the refs waved it off, Washington State trudged off the field while Stanford’s players whooped in joy, knowing that they had stolen one.

The Cougs, meanwhile, absorbed their most agonizing loss in that same amount of time or longer, one that will haunt their memories forever.

In a perverse way, the pain represented tremendous progress. The hurt was deeper because the stakes were higher. And the stakes were higher because Washington State had made them so with road wins over Oregon and Arizona that made this one a showdown for the Pac-12 North lead.

On an inhospitable night in the Palouse, Washington State showed that it was not playing out of its league against a Stanford team that had won six straight in decisive fashion.

It would be too easy to say they “Coug’d it” (though many will, of course, after Stanford overcame a 12-point deficit midway through the third quarter). Washington State played too well for that, outgaining Stanford, 442 yards to 312 (despite having minus-4 yards in the first quarter), forcing two turnovers and mostly holding ultra-dangerous Christian McCaffrey in check.

But Washington State had two huge replays go against it, one negating an interception return for a touchdown in the first half, the other one taking away what looked like a recovery of a McCaffrey fumble in the third quarter.

And they made just enough mistakes to do them in, including an interception by Luke Falk early in the fourth quarter that led to a go-ahead Stanford touchdown, and another interception of Falk later in the fourth that set the Cardinal up for a go-ahead field goal.

But what separated this game from the typical Cougar’d capitulation is that they followed these miscues with gutty comebacks. There was an 81-yard scoring drive to put them back ahead with 7:56 to play, and that final, last-ditch drive that put them in position to steal the game.

Another sign of progress for Washington State: None of that soothed the pain. Linebacker Peyton Pelleur cited “disappointment in ourselves for leaving plays out there. It shouldn’t have had to come down to a kick. We left plays on the field.”

“Football is a game of inches; it comes down to four plays. We know that,’’ added linebacker Jeremiah Allison. “We have to win. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is wins and losses.”

Early on, it looked like Stanford couldn’t handle the weather, Washington State’s swarming defense, or an Air Raid offense that took a quarter to get unfurled.

The Cougars were out-physicaling the most physical team in the Pac-12, and out-scheming the brainiacs. But then Stanford began to regain its footing, primarily on the running of quarterback Kevin Hogan, who broke off gallops of 39 yards to set up one score and 59 yards to put it in the end zone himself.

Still, the Cougars could have survived all that had that last kick been just a little straighter. ESPN’s “Game Day” may have chosen Philadelphia over Pullman, but the atmosphere at Martin Stadium was electric, right until the plug was pulled.

“He put us in the situation to win that game,’’ Falk said of Powell. “He is a great kicker. I told him that in the locker room, that he’s got the next one.

“There’s a lot of positives you can draw from this game, but certainly it’s not our best effort.”

Give the Cougars this much: They’ve advanced too far for moral victories.