"I'm going to be honest, it sits in the back of the head," Toni Pole said Monday at WSU's weekly media session with players.
The Cougars, 4-2 at the midway point of the season, need two wins to become bowl eligible. Three wins would guarantee a bowl trip, but two almost certainly will do the job.
"We don't want to win just two games," the junior defensive tackle stressed. "We want to win the rest of them."
The quest continues Saturday night against Oregon State (4-1). ESPNU televises the sold-out Dad's Weekend contest from Martin Stadium at 7:30. The Beavers have won four in a row, but WSU is favored by 1 point.
"We can't start thinking and talking about bowls at all yet," senior center Elliott Bosch said. "We've got a long way to go before we can do that."
After Oregon State, the Cougars visit second-ranked Oregon, come home to face Arizona State, travel to Arizona, play host to Utah, then wrap up the regular season at No. 16 Washington. Oregon State and Arizona State were ranked in the Top 25 earlier this season.
POLE CERTAINLY ENJOYED life on Saturday. The Union City, Calif., native said "close to 60" friends and family members attended the California game.
The group included Pole's father, Sioni. Pole said his dad forever encourages him and pushes him to improve.
"He always texts me before the game," Pole said. "You know: ‘You need to play more physical.' ‘Alright, Dad. I know. My coach tells me every day.'"
And what did Sioni have to say after his son's big game Saturday?
"He said I've got to play better."
The 300-pound Pole said he did not play football until high school because he was too heavy for Pop Warner youth leagues. It's hard to imagine the humongous Pole playing soccer, but he said that was the first sport he played.
"It was good for footwork," he said. "I played defender. It was weird, because I was the biggest kid on the field, but I was still catching the smallest dude on the field."
WSU QUARTERBACK Connor Halliday only added to his tough-guy reputation when he played in obvious pain while passing for a career-high 521 yards in Saturday's win over California. Two years ago, Halliday played most of the Utah game with a lacerated liver.
"He's the toughest quarterback I've ever known in my life," rugged Cougars safety Deone Bucannon said.
"Everyone can agree he's a tough guy and he can play through some pain," Bosch said.
"He's not the biggest guy," Pole noted, "but I know he won't back down."
The Cougars don't discuss or usually even acknowledge injuries, of course, but Halliday briefly grabbed his left hip or upper leg after getting drilled Sept. 28 against Stanford. He sat out most of the second half, then limped badly at times against California.
Halliday is threatening WSU's single-season record for passing yards. Ryan Leaf set the record of 3,968 in 1997; Halliday is on pace for 4,036. Halliday leads the nation with 290 pass attempts, and he's tied for first with 10 interceptions.
"He's the best quarterback I've had on a team … he's a great leader and a great player," Bucannon said.
"(He is) sort of," Mike Leach quipped when asked about Halliday's toughness. "He's probably not half as tough as he thinks he is."
ONE YEAR AFTER allowing an ugly 57 quarterback sacks the Cougs have yielded just 10 sacks in six games. WSU leads the nation in pass attempts for the second straight season.
"Part of that is Connor getting rid of the ball fast and getting rid of the ball when he needs to," Bosch said. "Part of it is due to improvement as an offensive line. Everyone is playing as a unit."
Last week, John Fullington replaced Rico Forbes as the starting right tackle, and Matt Goetz (6-4, 270) started in Fullington's old right guard spot. Leach said Monday that Goetz played "pretty good," but is not certain to start against Oregon State.
"I think he played a real solid game," Bosch said. "I think, at times, he might've gotten driven back a little bit. Size-wise, he's not a big guy. But I think he played a good game."
Halliday was sacked only once at Cal while throwing a school-record 67 passes.
"The offensive line played unreal," he said after the game.
HALLIDAY WON'T BE the only prolific passer on hand Saturday night. Oregon State's Sean Mannion leads the nation with 2,018 passing yards. Halliday is third with 1,993.
"We're going up against a real good quarterback with a great arm," Bucannon said.
"He can sling the ball … he beat me in our first playoff game my senior year (of high school in Northern California)," Pole recalled. "I'm pretty sour about that. We beat ‘em my junior year."
POLE RECOVERED TWO fumbles inside Cal's 5-yard line last week – forcing one of them – and the WSU defense gave up just 20 points against the Bears' pass-happy offense. However, the Cougars were smoked for 504 passing yards by Cal freshman Jared Goff, including an 89-yard touchdown pass.
"That was totally my fault … I was over-aggressive," Bucannon said.
Bucannon, who leads the Pac-12 Conference with 56 tackles, has intercepted a pass in four straight games. The four picks tie him for the national lead.
Bucannon has earned rave reviews from WSU defensive coordinator/secondary coach Mike Breske and others. Bucannon said a vigorous off-season weightlifting program that bulked him up to 215 pounds has "made a big difference" in his play. Bucannon said the added weight hasn't taken away from his speed and quickness.
He'll need plenty of both qualities to help cover Brandin Cooks on Saturday. The Oregon State wide receiver leads the nation with 807 receiving yards, and he's tied for first with 52 catches and nine touchdown receptions.
Bucannon said the Cougars know what they need to improve on from the Cal game in terms of pass defense.
"Just our reads," he said. "Execute our responsibilities. Just like the coaches say, we need to go with the game plan and believe in the game plan."
COUGAR KICKER Andrew Furney said there was " a lot of hootin' and hollerin', a lot of dancin'" in the locker room after Saturday's win. The normally loquacious kicker clammed up when asked to name the best dancer on the Cougars.
"I'm just not going to answer that one," he said with a smile. "I'd get a lot of crap from teammates."
Many football coaches seem to barely tolerate kickers, but Leach says Furney is more "normal" than most.
"It's funny," Furney said, "because I got that a few times on the recruiting trail. A couple guys told me, ‘I expected you to be really weird, but you're really not.'"
Actually, Furney admits, "I'm a little weird. I'm kinda goofy. I'm kind of a goober. That's how you've got to be. Have fun. Enjoy life."
FURNEY SAYS THE Cougars are the "closest," the "most determined" and the "most confident" team he's played on in his four years at WSU. He said all those factors helped the Cougars pound California one week after a lopsided loss to Stanford.
"In the past, we have a big loss to a big team – a good team – we'd put our heads down and go, ‘Oh, here we go again,'" Furney said.
BUCANNON SAID Saturday's game is "incredibly important" to him because it's Armed Forces Day at Martin Stadium.
Both of Bucannon's parents served in the military, and the senior said the discipline instilled in him while growing up "made me who I am."
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