Early in the year the Cougars were the Rocky-like bum, with wasted talent, regrets and missed opportunities. It felt like this 2015 squad was destined to be thrown onto the ever-growing pile of “never was” Cougar teams, teams who held potential unrealized, and were preferred to be forgotten. But fortunes turned and then turned some more, and the Cougar players now find themselves with the biggest opportunity in recent memory.
Like the Rocky film, it doesn't matter how they got it. It doesn't matter if they “deserve” it in the eyes of others. It's here. We are on the eve of November and the Cougars are about to host Stanford for what amounts to a Northern Division title shot. Washington State spent this past week becoming one of the bigger stories in college football, as the No. 1 challenger in the Pac-12 North.
I'd like to tell you all to relax and not take this game too seriously; that the Cougs are playing with house money and have nothing to lose. But that would be wrong. Opportunities like this don't come along all that often. To let it slip past would be a lament that would endure long after the final gun.
In the conference of champions, The Champ is always going to come to town from time to time. Last year, the Cougs took on an Oregon team who would play for the CFB title. Wazzu battled the Ducks to the wire before falling victim to some great plays by Marcus Mariota, and some horrendous officiating. In ‘06, the Cougs fought USC in Pullman at the height of Pete Carroll era, falling just short, 26-20. Four years before that, WSU took on the Trojans and beat them in overtime, vaulting themselves into a Rose Bowl run.
Saturday’s game is arguably right up there with them.
The Cougars are not in the same weight class as the Stanford, so say the pollsters and odds makers. The Cardinal are ranked No. 8 and a 10 1-2 point favorite as of last check. But the Cougs have some very particular weapons in their arsenal that give them more than just a puncher’s chance.
They are deep at the skill positions, composed at quarterback, both lines are rising and they’re under the guidance of one of the most aggressive, fearless coaches in the business.
In short, the Cougars are the kind of opponent Rocky’s trainer Mickey referred to as, “a very dangerous kind of poi-sen.”
This WSU vintage, unlike their three predecessors under Leach, hit the scoreboard like a wrecking ball. And they can take a hell of a punch. Indeed, there may not be a tougher team to knock out in the conference right now. Teams simply cannot build a lead big enough to withstand the kind of hits Luke Falk and the Cougar O are delivering in the final round.
That said, the Cougars are far from perfect. The flaws in this team run deeper than you might think, and reveal themselves spectacularly from time to time. The defense can be a swarming bunch one play (as pictured above) andthe next it's Katie, bar the door.
But I think it is OK to admit at this point, that the Pac-12 features a decided lack of consistency. Just about anyone, one any given Saturday, can look very good, and very ordinary. Most of the teams that appear to have taken a big step forward, may simply just be ones who did not take a huge step backwards.
Stanford is as solid, but they do not have the juggernaut defense they had last year. They rank 32nd in total defense, despite facing four opponents with offenses outside of the top 100.
Offensively, they also rank 32nd. Kevin Hogan is having to carry much more weight than he did in the past. Even running back Christian McCaffrey, who has emerged as the No. 1 all-purpose threat in the country, is carrying a very heavy workload to keep the offense moving.
The Cougars can hang with a team like that.
Stanford is undeniably a good football team, but that is all they are: good. By comparison to other great Pac-12 heavyweights of recent years, they lack knockout power. They generally just grind you down, and wait for you to make mistakes. But if this game turns into a battle of heart, I like WSU's chances.
After all, the Cougs are the hometown underdog. The stars have aligned for this shot at the title. So hey, Rock, why don't you stand up and fight this guy HARD? Like you done before, dat was beautiful!