TEMPE, Ariz. – So, who’s it going to be?
Which Washington State football team will show up at Sun Devil Stadium to play Arizona State today at noon?
It could be the Cougars we saw in Salt Lake City two weeks ago, the ones whose effort “bordered on cowardice” at times according to coach Mike Leach, the ones who lost 49-6 to a Utah team that currently holds a 4-6 record.
Or, it could be the Cougars (2-8, 0-7 Pac-12) who dug a 37-7 halftime hole against UCLA last week before scratching their way to a more respectable 44-36 loss, one coaches and players both insist would have been theirs for the taking if not for a series of special-teams mishaps in the first half.
“I think the biggest thing we have to do is take a step and get better this week,” WSU center Elliott Bosch said. “We took a step when we played Stanford and then we took a step back when we played Utah. We took a step forward this week and then we just have to build on that.”
Today will also be the first time WSU plays a game since the school announced it was investigating claims made by former receiver Marquess Wilson that players had been abused, both physically and verbally, by the coaching staff.
Investigators have concluded the interview process and are now compiling information, according to a source. But if the team is distracted, they aren’t showing it.
“I do think we’ve got a bunch of guys starting to get it here,” said Leach after Tuesday’s practice. “We had a real enthusiastic day today. Chemistry’s a lot of any team sport and our chemistry’s as good now as it’s been since I’ve been here.”
Is it good enough, though, to help WSU snap its seven-game losing streak and secure the Cougars’ first conference victory of the season?
ASU hasn’t won recently, either. The Sun Devils (5-5, 3-4 Pac-12) have lost four games in a row to teams currently ranked in the Top 25 of both major polls, and Leach sees some similarities between the squads.
But the Sun Devils are also playing for a bowl game, wanting to seal their eligibility with a sixth win before next week’s rivalry game against Arizona.
“They’re kind of an inspired group but they’re like us, too,” Leach said. “They play in spurts at times. They’re really explosive.”
That more or less defined WSU’s game last week against UCLA. A big part of the Cougars’ explosiveness, though, likely won’t play this afternoon. Connor Halliday, the sophomore from Spokane, threw for 330 yards and five touchdowns against the Bruins after Jeff Tuel left with an apparent injury to his collarbone area.
But Tuel hasn’t missed a practice and Leach announced him as the team’s starting quarterback early in the week, meaning the senior – who looked sharp himself last week, completing 11 of his 14 passes before being knocked out – will get another chance.
“We’re playing to win, and guys are buying in and they’re doing that,” Tuel said. “We’re going to grind, we’re going to fight and we’re going to scrap. That’s the reputation we want. We’re going to bring it all four quarters and just be hard-playing, nasty dudes that are never going to give up.”
They have two more chances to prove such nastiness.