And that starts with awareness of their shortcomings following a 38-28 loss at Stanford -- one that wasn't nearly as close as it actually appeared.
"We've got to take care of the football," coach Paul Wulff said during a halftime radio interview.
Granted, that did happen -- but not until the fourth quarter, when Jeff Tuel threw touchdown passes to Marcus Richmond, Jared Karstetter and Marquess Wilson for a combined 21 points, breathing some life into a Cougar team one more interception from needing a ventilator.
"We're having a lot of small victories," the sophomore quarterback said after the game. "We know we're a good team and we're not going to roll over."
TUEL HAD A strong game, completing 21 of 28 passes for 298 yards and a season high four touchdowns -- but he also threw interceptions on the first possession of both halves, setting up Stanford scores each time.
"We just wanted to see if we could get some momentum and score on our opening drive," Wulff said of the Cougars' rare decision to receive first after winning the coin toss.
The Cardinal were held to a field goal on their opening drive despite taking over at the Washington State 7 following an interception by linebacker Owen Marecic.
"Jeff had his arm hit and he threw that interception," Wulff said in his post-game remarks. "The defense responded really well. I thought it was a test for our defense."
"I definitely wasn't aiming at the linebacker's chest," he said. "It was a pretty crappy result."
THE INTERCEPTION, COUPLED with a fumble by Logwone Mitz late in the first quarter, didn't bode well for the Cougars early on.
"I think in the first half we took ourselves off the field a few times," Karstetter said. "We didn't execute."
Washington State rallied to cut the deficit to 10-7 early in the second quarter when defensive lineman Kevin Kooyman intercepted Andrew Luck's screen pass and set up a 12-yard touchdown pass from Tuel to Karstetter.
"They're a very physical team," Kooyman said. "They lived up to their reputation."
The Cardinal took another pair of touchdowns, by running back Stepfan Taylor, and a 24-7 lead into halftime and never looked back. They ran over the Cougs plenty along the way.
"Our second quarter wasn't very good," Wulff said. "They had long drives and wore down our defense."
The Cougars were more stout in the third quarter, forcing Stanford to punt for the first time of the game, and then driving into their territory. But on third-and-12 at the Stanford 34, Tuel's pass was tipped by linebacker Shayne Skov and picked by safety Taylor Skaufel.
IF NOT FOR the Cougars' Tuel-led scoring blitz in the fourth quarter, they would have returned to Pullman once again feeling only a bitter defeat. Instead, it was bittersweet.
DE Kooyman's second-quarter interception, a fantastic grab from close to point blank range, was his first in four seasons.
And Richmond's 18-yard reception was the first touchdown of his college career.
"That was great concentration," Wulff said of the senior, who caught three passes for 39 yards.
It's those types of small victories that could give Washington State the boost it needs -- the one that has its players hungrier than ever.
"It's good to see where we have come," said senior linebacker Myron Beck. "It's kind of getting old -- coming close."
ALSO OF POTENTIAL benefit to the Cougars ending their Pac-10 losing streak, now at 14, is the schedule finally lightens after three consecutive weeks of playing ranked opponents (and five in their first eight games). No, they still won't get a bye week until after the season's 11th game, but they next face an Arizona State team that lost 50-7 at California on Saturday, and then the Golden Bears the next week.
"I think we're moving forward," Karstetter said. "But we want to go out and get a win."