In a game that wasn’t as close as the score, Washington State (5-2, 3-1) defeated Arizona (5-3, 2-3) by a final of 45-42.
Mike Leach seems to have finally turned the WSU football program in the right direction. He has the Cougs playing at a level reminiscent of the days when Mike Price and Bill Doba’s 2001-03 squads were turning in 10-win seasons and postseason play was a given.
WSU now stands alone in second place in the Pac-12 North heading into a critical tilt next Saturday against Stanford, with the Cardinal atop the North and playing like the conference’s best (with apologies to Utah).
How good is it for the Cougs right now?
Washington State controls their own conference destiny. Should they play up to their ability over the next five games and post consecutive wins, the Cougs will find themselves playing in the conference championship game in December.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
That said, it’s tough for WSU fans who thirst for success to not drink in what’s transpired over the past three weeks and be excited enough to look beyond the only game on the schedule next week.
Watching the way this team has rolled on to the field with significant swagger following their upset of Oregon in Eugene two weeks ago begs the question, “What’s different about this team?”
Both the WSU offensive and defensive units are playing with a level of execution that has everyone on the team expecting wins. They have talented players on the roster, legit Pac-12 talent. Players not only believe in Leach and his system, they have put in the requisite reps to perform at a high level.
There is a new look to the Cougs both on and off the field which reflects a belief in themselves. In Year Four of the Leach era, they have finally learned what it takes to win Pac-12 games.
And that, my friends, is what confidence will do for any competitive football team.
One challenge Washington State has struggled with since Mike Leach arrived in Pullman is playing a complete game, all 60 minutes. This win at Arizona came pretty darned close.
It was impressive to see Luke Falk lead his offense down the field on a 10-play, 78-yard drive on their initial possession of the game. Clearly the guys wearing icy white uniforms with a crimson WSU logo on the helmet were ready to execute and ready to play.
The demeanor of “Cool Hand Luke” Falk breathes confidence into this teammates. He’s unflappable when faced with adversity and reflects the calm exterior of his head coach when strolling to the sideline after scoring.
Equally impressive was the play of coach Alex Grinch’s defense on not just the opening series against Arizona, but for the bulk of the game. Once again at Arizona, it seemed WSU linebackers were everywhere.
Another big difference in the way the Cougars are playing relates to one of their shortcomings. A special teams failure nearly allowed Arizona back into this contest when Nate Phillips worked his way through the Cougar punt coverage for a 69-yard touchdown return that knotted up the score at 14-14.
Instead of allowing panic to set in, Falk engineered another smooth 78-yard drive, capped by a highlight-reel pitch and catch with Gabe Marks. Frankly, it looked as though the Cougar offense was working against their scout team as they confidently drove down the field to take back the lead.
After being stifled, stuffed and reduced to a relatively stagnant offense in the first half, coach Rich Rodriguez changed things up for the final two quarters by playing dual threat quarterback Jerrard Randall.
Rodriguez looked brilliant when Randall gashed the Cougs for an explosive run, leading to a touchdown five plays later. It’s never a good thing when your opponent scores, but the fact that it took another five plays to gain the final 16 yards suggests the Cougar D had their heads in the game on the very next snap - a change from years past.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the way Washington State played this week: their ability to maintain focus and play with a measure of aggression.
Make that controlled aggression.
This was a team victory that included stellar performances by Marks’ school record four touchdown receptions and Falk’s 514-yard passing game.
Best of all, this was a win over a quality team on the road, one the Cougar coaches and players can build on.
WSU fans should share the confidence of their team, savor the moment, then look forward to more Cougar football next Saturday in Pullman. It’s become a season where every game keeps getting bigger and bigger.
RELATED STORY: WSU-Arizona stats another reason for CougFans to smile
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A graduate of Washington State, new CF.C writer Lew Wright has covered Cougar athletics for many years. His articles and essays have been published in a number of national and local print as well as online media including: New York Times, Washington Post, Business Week, LA Business Journal, SI.com, Yahoo!, Examiner.com, Bleacher Report and a number of Southern California newspapers. Editing credits include a sports blog, book of poetry and corporate newsletters.