Cougars earn an MV in loss at UCLA

MANY, MANY YEARS ago, when I worked at a newspaper in Oregon, a magnetic Oregon State football schedule landed in my mailbox. The wiseacre columnist at our joint grabbed the calendar and began predicting the season outcome by writing "W" or "L" in ink by each game. And a few "MVs."

MV?

Moral victory.

It was bleak back in those days at Oregon State, as it is now at Washington State. Victories come sparingly; for some reason, Jim Sterk was unable to convince Portland State to play the Cougs more than once this season.

Cougars coach Paul Wulff opened the door to embracing moral victories last week after Oregon spanked WSU 63-14.

COMMENTARY

"Right now we're taking any kind of victories, and they're going to be small ones," he said. "The outcome, the score, it is what it is. I'm not going to get caught up in it. We lose a ball game, we lose it. We win a game, we win it. The score is not our issue right now."

So the Cougars headed south to Pasadena on Saturday, in search of a moral victory against UCLA. What constitutes a moral victory depends on the opponent.

Southern California? If the Cougars force Pete Carroll to talk about second-half adjustments in the locker room at halftime, that's a moral victory.

An Oregon or California? It's a moral victory if WSU can keep either team out of the end zone before Glenn Johnson finishes "Here come the Cooooougs!"

Washington? There's no such thing as a moral victory against the Huskies. Especially in their current state.

UCLA? Something a little more competitive than Saturday's 28-3 loss to the Bruins.

My opinion: the Cougars have three outside shots at victory remaining this season, and one was UCLA. The Bruins have a better defense than Washington State, but are almost as offensively challenged as the Cougars. Any team that loses 59-0 to the Brigham Young Cougars can be had by the Washington State Cougars given the right set of breaks.

The game sure started as though Washington State had a moral victory in sight.

The defense came to play, at least at the outset. The Cougars stopped UCLA cold on its first three possessions, to the point where they appeared to get cheated out of a safety when running back Kahlil Bell was tackled near the goal line.

And talk about your moral victories: the score after one quarter was 0-0. MV!

Moral victory was still in sight at halftime, even after UCLA scored two second-quarter touchdowns to take a 14-0 lead. But it quickly faded in the second half, as Washington State's offense showed little life; running back Dwight Tardy, who ran for 214 yards a year ago against the Bruins, managed just 50 on Saturday.

That's not to say Washington State didn't leave Pasadena empty-handed. The Cougars kept intact their longtime scoring streak of 279 games, second best in the country – thanks to the foot of Nico Grasu, who booted a 47-yard field goal early in the third quarter.

And, for the first time in three Pac-10 games, the Cougars didn't give up 60-plus points, as they did against Oregon and California. Of course, UCLA might not score 60 points against air, but still, as Wulff said, we'll take any kind of victory.

Just don't call a 28-3 loss to UCLA a moral victory.

Where do the Cougars go from here?

Obviously, it's going to take something close to perfect for Washington State to pull off a moral victory or two against Pac-10 competition this season, let alone a genuine victory.The offense needs to consistently put together drives as it did a week ago during the second quarter against Oregon. At worst, the Cougars don't score, but at least keep their overworked and overmatched defense from too many torchings. At best, they score and give the team some confidence and energy.

While some would say Oregon State is the most important game because it's next on the schedule, it's not. The most important games are the ones remaining at home: USC on Oct. 18, Arizona on Nov. 8 and Washington on Nov. 22.

Huh?

It's clear there will be no bowl game this season. But the future doesn't have to suffer the same fate. Each one of those home games figures to have several recruits on hand. If they can play, the Cougars need as many of them as they can get.

The atmosphere in Martin Stadium must be fun. There has to be a sense from the coaches that they're on the right track, even if the scoreboard paints a bleak picture. Even in this darkest of seasons, the players should act as though wearing the crimson and gray is nothing less than an honor.

Finish the season the right way. Because the last thing any program wants to covet is a moral victory.

Nick Daschel covered Washington and Washington State football, and to a lesser extent, the Pacific-10 Conference, for The Columbian in Vancouver, Wash during the past two decades.


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