Many Cougar fans were also pleased, but not surprised when WSU was ranked No. 23 in the Coaches' poll on Sunday morning. But 76,000-plus fans on hand in Pasadena to witness a great football game played at the historic home of the granddaddy of all bowl games were stunned (well, those wearing powder blue, anyway).
Mike Leach’s Cougars, now 7-3 overall and 5-2 in Pac-12 play, also stunned the oddsmakers for the seventh consecutive week by once again covering the spread, and then some. WSU opened as an 8 1/2-point underdog and by game time, UCLA was a 12 1/2 point favorite.
For the majority of hearty souls who stayed up well past bedtime to watch this game on ESPN, they were stunned by a sports network who didn’t prepare them for the level of football WSU is playing this season.
“ESPN, why haven’t we heard more about the Cougars?,” was a query heard in places far and near.
As this writer stood nearby Leach on the sideline over the course of the closing minutes last night, I can honestly tell you who wasn’t stunned by Gabe Marks' athletic catch in the end zone with :03 left on the clock -- Washington State. Thrilled, excited, sure. But not surprised. The Cougar football team expected to win the day. Check that. The demeanor of Leach and his squad on that final drive was that of a team on the brink of victory.
Videotape of the winning score:
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The Cougs came to Pasadena to do their job. They worked over the previous six days to prepare for the only game on their schedule last week. Hard work and preparation can lead to winning a Pac-12 game on the road but when you amp up players adrenalin with a dose of disrespect you have a reciepe for for victory.
I’m getting ahead of myself, something Bruin fans know all too well. They were celebrating wildly when Bruin quarterback Josh Rosen surveyed a huge gap in the Cougar defense and scampered 37 yards for what they thought was the winning touchdown.
These two teams punched and counterpunched each other through all four quarters of play. UCLA racked up massive amounts of yardage marching up and down the field between the 20’s. WSU racked up fewer yards and a few more points than the Bruins.
As for the level of play, a key indicator can be found on the stat sheet about halfway down the game summary details. The teams combined for 22 penalties. And why was that? Well, some would describe the tone of this game to be chippy.
Let me tell you something from my vantage point(s) in the Rose Bowl: for 60 minutes of football these two teams flat out didn’t like each other and were unabashedly displaying contempt.
Let’s just describe this one as a textbook chapter for playing the game aggressively.
Part of UCLA’s aggression led to a vicious sack (one of six on the night) which dispatched WSU quarterback Luke Falk to the sidelines late in the first half.
“I got my bell rung just a little bit,” said Cool Hand Luke during post game interviews.
Part of WSU’s aggression led to executing a 7-play 75-yard drive with just 1:09 left in regulation to win the day -- and it was fitting that Gabe Marks pulled in the winning TD.
There will be plenty of words to pour over in the coming days detailing how Washington State defeated UCLA and crept into the conversation about who is the best team in the Pac-12. Linebacker Jeremiah Allison added to that discussion after the game by stating in the most basic of terms, “The coaches have been preaching to us all year that we are the best team in the Pac-12 and we’ve got to play like it.”
Allison then responded to a followup question about whether or not he believed WSU is the best team in the conference without skipping a beat, “Me personally, yes sir.”
There seemed to be nothing that would stand in the way of WSU winning their seventh game of the season, guaranteeing an invitation to postseason play. No longer are the Cougs bowl eligible, they are bowl guaranteed.
The immature actions of the Bruins during pregame warmups might have been interpreted as “disrespectful” by Marks and the Cougs, but it didn’t distract. WSU players took offense to UCLA players intentionally throwing footballs on their side of the field with the intent to intimidate and disrupt their focus. But like the Bruin defense on the winning drive by Washington State, it was poorly executed and ineffective.
UCLA knocked out Falk for a while but the next man up at quarterback, Peyton Bender, fought through adversity in the form of some underthrown passes and did his job. Bender and the Cougs capitalized on a WSU special teams takeaway and lofted a beautifully thrown pass to Dom Williams for a touchdown.
Following the Bender-to-Williams TD, the Cougar D did what was to become a theme for this game: bend don’t break. Three Bruin drives were marginalized by defensive coordinator Alex Grinch’s unit. The UCLA offense repeatedly marched downfield into the red zone only to be turned away with a consolation prize field goal.
With that said, let’s jump to the conclusion of one of the great finishes in Cougar football history.
In a game where it was clear the outcome wouldn’t be determined until the final meaningful possession -- to everyone at the Rose Bowl except the ardent, vocal and passionate contingent of Cougar Nation on their feet, UCLA scored the winning touchdown on a broken play with just 69 seconds left on the clock.
For UCLA, those 69-seconds proved to be 66 seconds too many -- and highlight film content for decades to come.
In the end it came to one team knowing what it takes to win at the Pac-12 level. It came down to one team playing a complete 60 minutes and leaving it all on the field.
It isn’t hyperbole to say Leach and this Cougar team know how to win football games better than most. Check not only their season record for verification of that identity but the way they've won those games. Indeed, these Cougs know they can beat any team, any time, any place. They know their roles, prepare to execute at the highest level and get the job done.
Like they’re done three previous times this season, Washington State knows what it takes to score the game-defining touchdown with the outcome in the balance. These 2015-16 Cougs refuse to allow anything to stop them from tipping the scoreboard in their favor before collecting their gear and heading home.
They know what it takes to close out a team to win the day.
Just ask UCLA, another opponent dispatched by those guys wearing the crimson and gray uniforms. The Bruins might have been wearing fashionable black unis but in the end it was the Cougars who wore the look of a winner for the seventh time this season.
And just like Washington State knows how to close out a game, this writer knows it’s time to close out this postgame analysis.