Cougs and Cougar Nation back in full force

THE MEASUREMENT of just how good a team is can be is often revealed by how they react to adversity. This edition of Cougar football has a number of flaws, but lacking the will to win isn’t one of them.

Here’s where Washington State won the day against Arizona State: They worked their butts off through three quarters of football before dominating their opponent in the final period of play to the tune of 21-3.

Make no mistake, what this Washington State team lacks in consistency they more than make up for in confidence, swagger and coachability. Throughout the game, players on the WSU sidelines were being coached up to gain focus on the task at hand.

Demonstrative emotions are not part of the DNA Mike Leach expects to be a part of his football program. Heck, he’ll leave that to fans. And the Cougar Nation was more than happy to oblige, making one other very salient point here:

It is not only the Cougar football players who have taken this return trip to upper half of the Pac-12, the fan base has also made the trek too, as the sellout crowd made plain on Saturday in Martin Stadium.

The combination of team play and enthusiastic support has catapulted Washington State into bowl eligibility in 2015 -- and there are still three more games left in this regular season. As Luke Falk so aptly put it after the game, they have higher aspirations than just bowl eligibility.

And with Mike Leach fulfilling the role of a swashbuckling captain, the Cougs are on a successful course.

It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t a complete game. But it was another team victory Washington State (6-3, 4-2 Pac-12) over Arizona State (4-5, 2-4 Pac-12) in Pullman by a final of 38-24.

Once again the expectations for an exciting college game involving the high powered WSU offense were realized. Once again a confident Cougar ball club prevailed.

The days of opening television coverage of condescending comments like, “...the upstart Cougars…” only remain for those who haven’t been paying attention to what’s going on out on the Palouse.

This Saturday, and in relishing one of his few winning decisions of this day, Arizona State coach Todd Graham elected to defer to the second half after winning the coin toss. Kicking off and entrusting his defense with the burden of setting the tone, Graham strategically looked like the 2013 Pac-12 Coach of the Year following that call.

At the outset the Cougs seemed to have overslept and missed their wakeup call.

Playing in front of a standing room only crowd in Martin Stadium, Falk and the Cougar offense quieted the crowd by going three and out. Couple that with ASU easily marching 70 yards in eight plays and WSU resembled an  upstart - promising, but also fully capable of flat play and uninspired starts.

As if that start wasn’t slow enough, the same sequence was repeated.

The Sun Devils controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball early on and it looked as though Leach might have to express some level of emotion to get his guys playing at a Pac-12 level.

With ASU blitzing effectively from seemingly every direction in the first two series, Falk wasn’t going to force the ball. He chose to avoid throwing into coverage and risking a turnover. It was only midway through the first quarter and there was a lot of football left to be played, right?

If you’re a Cougar fan, it got worse.

When Falk got his hands on the ball for a third possession, he sailed a throw so high ASU’s deep back easily picked the ball and returned it to the WSU 22-yard line. 

Storming out onto the field in front of a crowd stunned into silence, the Washington State defense began to play the kind of football this team is capable of. They gave up 19 yards and not an inch more. With the Sun Devils thinking their trip to the Palouse was going to be a pleasurable excursion, Graham went for the jugular.

Bad move. And thank you very much, said relieved Cougar fans when the crimson stop corps stuffed the fourth-and-three try from the WSU two-yard line.

If you were hoping for a turning point, this was it. The Cougar D drew a line in the sand that was not to be stepped over by a team they knew they could defeat.

Enough was enough.

Though Falk engineered a 17-play drive of 92-yards, his offesnive unit ultimately turned the outcome over to the special teams field goal unit. Erik Powell did his job to get WSU on the scoreboard in the opening seconds of the second quarter.

That drive proved to be all Washington State needed to begin playing up to their potential.

Make no mistake, it was a gradual process to meld the magic combination of competitive play and passionate, vocal support from a stadium anxious to be a part of getting Washington State here.

Giving credit where it’s due, the officiating crew were ever present all afternoon. The most controversial call came when an inadvertent whistle erased a short completion to Gabe Marks on fourth-and-goal the would have come up short of the marker late in the first half.

On the TV broadcast, officiating expert Mike Pereira (former Vice President of Officiating for the NFL), summed up exactly what the situation called for by suggesting, "I think I should have come to Pullman."

The game resumed with a replay of fourth down after an emotional reaction by Graham. Understandable, but it was the right call. (***Or maybe not, the Pac-12 on Sunday said a mistake was made.Still, that such a big call went WSU's way after the previous week's debacle vs. Stanford seemed both fitting and a nice turnabout).

Reset. And Falk calmly read the coverage at the line for the second chance then cashed in with a crisp connection to Dom Williams for a touchdown. Williams would later provide the dagger with his second TD grab.

But before then, through the first 30 minutes of play, the feeling was this game would likely come down to who might make the best adjustments at halftime. Leach shared what he planned to correct in the second half with the Cougar radio broadcast.  His team had "...a lot of stupid thoughts running through (their) heads." Fix that and WSU should win the day.

ASU could have looked brilliant in electing to get the ball first in the second half. Clinging to a 14-10 lead, the task was rather simple in concept: Drive the opening possession the length of the field for an 11-point lead and lull the home crowd into their seats left to wonder what just happened.

Not only did the Sun Devils fail to score, they no longer looked like a team who really wanted to win this game - and that looked to be a direct result of what the Cougs were now doing.

It was the Cougar offense who began taking control of game tempo, the line of scrimmage and the most important stat each and every week, putting points on the scoreboard. ASU might have limited the Cougs to 156 yards of total offense in the first half but the odds of them doing that for another two quarters weren’t very good.

The second half was Cool Hand Luke time. His receivers would accumulate twice the yardage they gained prior to halftime.

But Graham almost distracted a WSU team asserting their will to win with a fake punt. Successfully extending the drive with a completed pass, the worry was ASU might have regained their swagger. The trick play set up a touchdown and served to let Graham's team know what it’s like to have a lead heading into the final 15 minutes of play.

But Leach has taught his team well. WSU outscoring the Sun Devils 21-3 in the fourth quarter captured that neatly.

One play at a time, Washington State proved they were the better team on the field this Saturday.

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