1. Greatness does not beat itself. There is no excuse or rationale in my mind for losing to an FCS team. I know the argument that the FBS-FCS gap has narrowed, and that more and more Power 5 teams are getting upset in these games. But there is still no excuse. How the Cougs responded was certainly encouraging, but the great teams do not let these games slip away.
Washington State cannot afford to take themselves out of the race before it even begins. We saw this year what a perfect run in Pac-12 play could do over seven games. But think of how much narrower the margin for error becomes, and what was lost in terms of polls and media attention by stumbling out of the gate the past two years.
2. Cougar Nation was very thankful last week. The Washington State program was feted as being among the nation’s best and the Apple Cup was for all the marbles. But that is where I felt the fans, and the team, failed.
Being thankful just to be participating will not satisfy the hunger for a Rose Bowl, and it felt to me like too many in Cougar Nation were a little too thankful, and not driven enough for more. Participating is not the goal at this level, and only a few find a way to elevate from good to great. I remember my first years in the NFL, my entire goal was to be on the roster come September, just to be standing on the sideline for opening kickoff. And of course, there was an entire season left to be played and it became all too apparent I had set my focus too low. You either rest on your laurels or choose to dream on.
In 2016, it feels to me like once WSU accomplished a bowl berth, combined with a regular season finale for a conference title game berth, the Cougars became very complacent. That is the first challenge the program must recognize and correct if it wants to make the leap to greatness. WSU must set its expectations higher and then work every day to reach them.
3. The intense focus of a champion is only exceeded by the passionate fire to be great. Washington State is very capable of showing the focus and discipline needed to win, but the fire was simply lacking too often this season. I have been a proponent of 'each week, new game, same importance,' but the truth is there ARE special games, battles within a season that ultimately decide a team's fate. And these battles require more than a 'normal' week.
A rivalry, a championship game, the last game of the year, that should ignite that flame. But the Cougs came out looking like a team trying to finish in the top tier, while Huskies came out with a burning desire to prove it. The Huskies came down with the passes up for grabs, they were the ones running through tackles and blowing their man off the ball. That extra effort was sorely lacking from the Cougs.
And don’t place the blame solely on the coaches for this -- seniors and leaders must be able to spark others on the field. And I personally believe that is the responsibility of captains. The captains are the ones you turn to when times are the most grueling, and ensure the mission is made complete.
I also think some of it is the lack of experience Washington State players have had with games that have national implications and therefore, national importance. It seemed the entire Cougar sideline did not fully understand that the eyes of the nation were watching, that the message from this game would be echoed throughout the football world. And the lack of urgency helped separate Washington State from a good 8-4 season and greatness.
4. Three things. I believe three things must be addressed before reaching the next level.
A. The d-line must make changes. In its losses, the Cougar defensive line looked far from intimidating, and at times they looked timid. A lack of fire, too much confusion on assignments or just being outmatched once the competition level rose were all in play. And two sacks in three weeks, and all that represents, is not enough production.
B. The Air Raid needs a second punch. Colorado and Washington were able to track Cougar receivers in man-to-man coverage or sit and wait for them in a Cover-2 zone. Washington State will need to continue to grow its running game as its second punch, in my view.
C. Field Goals. The field goal unit negatively affected too many games. Simple as that.
OKAY, SO WHERE does the Cougar program hold an edge in becoming great?
A. Leadership. The senior class will leave the Cougs in better position than WSU was in 2016. I believe the leaders who return in 2017 have the will, hunger and humility needed to be great. In the biggest moment, the kinds of guys who will demand the ball and game be put in their hands.
B. Offense. You can be great at one thing, but I don’t believe one thing can make you great in the game of football. In 2017, the Cougars’ ability to pass AND run the ball will elevate the offense.
C. Special teams. WSU was horrendous on special teams not so long ago, and for a long time. This season, WSU began covering AND returning kicks at a high level, signifying to me the chance to be great here is tantalizingly close.
In retrospect, and with a bowl game still to come, I believe this season will be looked back on as a build-up. Getting the wheel rolling in the right direction, with momentum building after each successful revolution, takes time and consistent effort. This team will be remembered for reeling off eight consecutive wins and propelling the Cougars back into the national spotlight. The Apple Cup gave Cougar Nation a taste of how much is at stake and from myriad angles, and the taste in 2016 was ultimately bittersweet. Add it all up and WSU now has any extra motivation needed, firmly in hand, to travel from good to great in 2017.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jed Collins, 30, spent seven seasons in the NFL with eight teams, working his way from undrafted free agent and practice squad player to starting fullback for the New Orleans Saints and Detroit Lions. He retired after the 2015 season. From 2004-07 he was an all-everything standout at Washington State, where he played linebacker, fullback and tight end. “Jedzilla,” as Cougar fans affectionately dubbed him, earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors as a senior in 2007 after catching 52 Alex Brink passes for 512 yards. Today he is an associate with the Seattle-based wealth management firm Brighton Jones.