Gunnar Eklund: Close doesn't cut it anymore

PULLMAN – Gunnar Eklund, a 6-foot-7, 305-pound man of appetite, can nearly taste it. After five years — rising from a no-name walk on out of Lake Stevens to a 36-game starter — he knows the frosting is almost on the proverbial cake.

“We’re close, it’s just the little mistakes we’re making,” the senior left guard told reporters this week.

The mistakes, he said, “are all fixable.”

The Cougars — 2-2 and 0-1 following a narrow loss to Cal last weekend and now prepping for Oregon on Saturday — have been close to being good for a long time, Eklund said.

Close, however, doesn’t cut it anymore, he added.

“We have to be the best practice team in the country. We have to practice better than anyone, and if you do that, it will translate on game day,” Eklund said.

Failing to execute, on each and every play, is the hair-line difference this team is from being 4-0 right now. “No matter what the situation, or what the score is, we just have to execute,” Eklund said. “It’s not always the fourth quarter, sometimes it’s any of the other three quarters.

“The most important play could come in the first quarter where you make a block and it springs a first down that leads to a TD drive instead of a third-and-out. You never know what or when the game-changing play could happen,” he said.

Cougar senior linebacker Jeremiah Allison shares Eklund’s sentiment.

“We’re there, we just have to win,” Allison said. “We just need to execute on every down. Each down is no different than the next one, if we can do it well on one, we should be able to do it on the next one.”

The Cougar defense, using a variety of different coverages to confuse star quarterback Jared Goff, turned in a memorable effort at Cal last weekend. There were breakdowns, to be sure, but they largely shut down the Bears’ running game and didn’t surrender a point in the fourth quarter.

“The biggest takeaway is this (Cougar) team can be very good,” Allison said. “The only people who are going to beat us are ourselves. If we realize what we have in front of us and we play like the team we know we are, and the team we prepared to be all summer, we can be really scary.”

In fact, Eklund said the defense’s improvement motivates the offense to “pick up” its game.

Cougar running back Jamal Morrow concurred. “We’re confident that they’re (the defense) going to stop the other team’s offense. It’s big to have that level of trust in the defense. When they get that stop, as an offense, we need to go score. That’s one thing that hurt us against Cal, we didn’t capitalize on the turnovers.”

LOOKING TO SATURDAY’S 3 P.M. GAME in Eugene, Allison said, “Oregon is always fast, flashy. They’re a team that wants to be great. I just love playing against them because growing up you saw them in the limelight so you just want a shot to play them and try to beat them.”

Last year in Pullman the Cougars took the heavily favored Ducks to the wire in a 38-31 loss that included a blatant, game-turning non-call on Oregon for pass interference late in the contest.

The Ducks are heavily favored again this time — by 17 points — even though their QB situation is markedly unsettled.

Will it be Vernon Adams, Jeff Lockie, Taylor Alie or some combination of the them?

“No matter who plays at quarterback, the scheme is going to be similar, so we don’t have to do more prep than if there was only one guy,” Allison said. “We just have to know the system and what each guy is capable of doing.”

As for the Cougar offense, Morrow says the focus for Saturday is straight forward.

“Against Oregon, we need touchdowns. I had a fumble last year, and that can’t happen. We need to get seven points, not kick field goals.”

The Ducks come into the game at an uncharacteristic 3-2 (1-1), with the two losses coming in a tight one at Michigan State and a rout at home against Utah.

“I don’t think they’re vulnerable, they’re still a great team,” Morrow said. “We just need to go out and compete.”

“It doesn’t matter who we’re playing, but they’re Oregon and we’re Washington State,” Eklund said. “We think we can beat any team in the nation. And they’re Oregon and they think they can beat any team in the nation too.”

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