In losing its third straight game to finish the season, Washington State was like the proverbial “4-A” baseball player — someone who dominates in the minors but struggles in the show.
SAN DIEGO — The task here is to try and describe a football team that, less than a month ago, was a victory away from winning the Pac-12 North.
The mission at hand is to characterize a group that, if not for a loss to Eastern Washington in early September, would have been in the national playoff conversation in mid-November.
Washington State was undefeated in conference play through eight games this season and had the second-best passing offense in the country. It was a team that beat Arizona by 62, Stanford by 26, and scored at least 50 points four times.
So how do you do it? How do you describe the 2016 Cougars after that Holiday Bowl?
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Unfortunately, like this: a team nowhere near as good as we once thought.
“We sucked. The offense was horrible. It’s our fault,” said Washington State receiver Gabe Marks, whose team scored fewer points than it had all year. “That’s how you lose. You don’t score points, you lose games.”
Aside from the playoffs, most bowl results are meaningless if the game is played before New Year’s. The victor is generally the one that wants to be there most, which doesn’t necessarily reflect poorly on the loser.
In this case, however, when a 17-12 loss to Minnesota marks the third straight loss for Wazzu (8-5), it suggests the Cougars’ record might have been deceiving. Fact is, when this team played quality teams or high-profile games, it generally failed to deliver.
Granted, there was the 42-16 win over Stanford on ESPN that showed the country Washington State had top-tier offensive potency. But other than the Cardinal, the only team WSU beat with a winning record was Idaho, which will join the FCS in 2018.
Much of the reason for the Cougars’ eight-game winning streak in the Pac-12 was their winning the scheduling lottery. No Utah or USC? That’s like a Tour de France rider getting to skip two Alps.
The smooth road Washington State enjoyed in the middle of the season is what makes the late-season plunge so disheartening. Yeah, the Cougs won eight games and reached a prestigious bowl — but what did they really prove?
Maybe you can chalk the loss to Eastern up to overconfidence, but what about the loss to Boise State the next week? Perhaps you can excuse the 14-point defeat to Colorado as a sloppy road effort, but what about the 28-point bludgeoning at the hands of the Huskies in Pullman?
The 2016 Cougars were like the proverbial “4-A” baseball player — someone who dominates in the minors but struggles in the show. And while that comparison might feel like piling on, it’s meant to illustrate that this program still has a ways to go.
After the game, Wazzu coach Mike Leach was asked about he how felt about his season.
“I thought we had a good year,” Leach said. “I mean, going into this year, you know, if we told people that we would win as many games as we did, they would have laughed me out of the room.”
But Marks answered the question with less satisfaction.
“We won eight games, that’s not bad. Not bad, but we lost the first two games because we weren’t ready to play, and we lost the last three games because we weren’t ready to play,” he said. “I don’t know how that happens. I don’t know how you can go and win eight games in a row against top competition and then just, I don’t know. Yeah, I mean, we left a lot on the table.”
The Cougars were seen as an attractive participant in the Holiday Bowl because of their famed “Air-Raid” offense, but Tuesday, the O never took flight.
Quarterback Luke Falk threw for 264 yards, but gained just 5.17 yards per pass — more than 2 yards less than his season average.
Washington State couldn’t connect on a deep ball, and didn’t find the end zone until the game was out of reach. Rough night for a Wazzu fan base that outnumbered Minnesota fans by a good 3 to 1.
But hey, that happens sometimes. No one will dispute that this wasn’t the Cougars’ day.
It’s just that, looking back on it, it wasn’t their season, either.