The 2016 Cougs are good, but it’s time to turn the page if they want to achieve what they set out to do. As a former WSU player, I know exactly what the players and coaches set out to accomplish this season, starting with the very first offseason workout in January: bring a Pac-12 championship to the Palouse, get Washington State back to the Rose Bowl. Period.
As great as the winning has been, these last two crimson victories tell me the Cougs won’t get there unless they clean some things up -- and they have to do it this week.
I believe this team is still learning how to handle and deal with success. I think what Mike Leach has said at various times over his tenure in Pullman still rings true today: that some Cougar players are still a little in awe of how far they have come. And when you start thinking that way, suddenly a double-digit Wazzu lead becomes a one score game with the clock winding down late in the fourth quarter in the desert.
Wins, and winning on a consistent basis, are super hard to come by in the Pac-12. If these Cougs want to keep winning down the stretch, they'll need to play much better than they did these past two weeks. Because something is holding these guys back. And whatever it is, they need to kick it to the curb this practice week starting on Tuesday (Leach cancelled Sunday night's short practice, WSU will next take the practice field Tuesday. I'll be there to bring you my full report) and then ensure it doesn’t return the rest of the way.
Because from where I stand, all the pieces are there for this team to be great. But the Cougs need to prove to all, and also to themselves, they can finish games the right way. In Tempe, WSU was ahead by three scores early in the fourth quarter. And yet it came down to the final seconds.
Indeed, in back-to-back games against the Bruins and the Sun Devils, the Cougs got out to a comfortable lead but both times saw it diminish late. The Cougars took their foot off the gas pedal. It was not one side of the ball failing to hold up their end -- it was a team-wide effort, or lack thereof, I should say. And that can’t happen the rest of the way with five regular season games left. Not anymore.
NOW THAT I have you all standing on the ledge, let’s face it: Luke Falk is one hellaciously tough football player. If it weren’t for Falk’s performance against Arizona State last night, I don’t believe the Cougs come out with the win.
In the years that I’ve watched and been around Falk, I have never seen him as comfortable as he was last night. He was in his zone much of the time, 10 steps ahead of everyone else. He has come so far from the first game that I now blanche when I think back to where I thought this offense, and Falk, were headed this season after an 0-2 start.
A day later, I still can’t believe how much fight Falk had in him after eating up one brutal hit after another on Saturday night. What a competitor. What a warrior.
In my eyes, Wazzu was the far better team last night in Sun Devil Stadium. But on offense, the hosses up front probably had their worst game of the season in surrendering seven sacks, rushing for minus 52 yards, and allowing Falk to take a beating all night.
It didn’t help that RG Cody O’Connell, who made three media preseason All-America lists, left in the second quarter with what looked like a leg injury and didn’t return. B.J. Salmonson replaced him but don't point fingers there - all five members of the o-line are unlikely to enjoy the film session with o-line coach Clay McGuire.
On defense, the Cougs dealt the Devils seven 3-and-outs on the night. The Cougar D looked unmovable at times. But then the stop corps had its own set of serious lapses, one that allowed ASU to creep back into the game. ASU had a great game plan and executed it with aplomb on stud d-end Hercules Mata’afa. And other Cougars who needed to step up in such a situation, didn’t. Not enough, anyway.
WSU’s special teams is another area that continues to show some very bright spots indeed – and then they take your breath away with complete meltdowns.
The Cougs’ kickoff return for a touchdown was huge. And it was also offset in allowing ASU to take a punt return all the way back for their own score. And then a missed extra point to top it off.
And let’s be real here. The 2016 Cougs have not shown themselves to be the Oregon or Stanford teams of the past 10 years. The dominance hasn’t been there enough. But that’s also the beautiful part about it. These Cougs are still developing. The ceiling remains high. There’s so much more this team is capable of in 2016-17. They can finish the season playing at the level those Oregon and Stanford teams did -- these Cougs can still draw those comparisons at the end of the day.
Indeed, the Cougs are in the process of controlling and creating their own destiny. In my eyes, the way that this team handles success from here on out, starting this week, will shape the future and identity of this football program for years to come.
As for this coming Saturday, I expect nothing less than a complete manhandling of an Oregon State team that’s better than they have shown. Every team left on the schedule is thirsty for wins right now and that includes the Beavs. Blink, or take your foot off the gas, and OSU can beat you.
Against OSU, it’s going to come down to the work the Cougs put in during the week, how focused they are on improving each day, attention to detail and most importantly, the heart and passion carried onto the practice field each day.
Nothing will be easy, everything must be earned.
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