PULLMAN – It’s not exactly a gantlet, competition-wise.
But for the Washington State football team, the final four games of this season present a daunting task. That’s because the Cougars (2-6, 0-5 Pac-12) have to win all of them to qualify for their first bowl game since 2003, one of WSU’s stated goals this season.
Priority No. 1: Win at Utah this week. The Utes have struggled this year to a 3-5 record, but they earned their first Pac-12 win Saturday with a convincing 49-27 pounding of California. And the Utes also opened as a 12-point favorite over the Cougars, which isn’t a surprise – WSU hasn’t been favored to win a game since its Sept. 22 loss to Colorado.
If the Cougars manage to pull an upset on Saturday in Salt Lake City, they would then need three consecutive wins over teams with a combined record of 15-9 – UCLA (6-2) at home, at Arizona State (5-3) and Washington (4-4) at home.
WSU is likely to be a considerable underdog in each of those games, so a run-the-table scenario is quite the long shot for a team that hasn’t won since Sept. 14.
But the Cougars might have some renewed hope after putting a scare into No. 19 Stanford on Saturday, ultimately losing 24-17 after driving inside the Cardinal’s 10-yard line in the final seconds.
“We were feeding off each other and that’s something this team has been missing, is playing as a team,” quarterback Jeff Tuel said. “(It was) one of the first times all season it felt like we really played as a unit.”
WSU’s defensive effort, especially, lends some credence to the thought that it might be close to turning a corner. The Cougars have allowed just 43 total points in their last two road games against Stanford and then-No. 14 Oregon State, two performances that bode well as WSU prepares to face an inconsistent Utah offense.
“As far as the effort, it was really a good effort game,” coach Mike Leach said. “So I’m really proud of our kids for a great effort.
“We’ve got to keep improving, keep getting better. I thought we played really hard. I thought we played well. We’ve just got to be a tougher, more mature team.”
They might be short-handed at receiver. Starting receiver Gabe Marks left Saturday’s game in the first half and returned to the sideline with his right arm in a sling. The severity of his injury is unknown because Leach doesn’t comment on injuries.
There is also no given timetable for the return of receiver Isiah Myers, who missed practices last week and didn’t make the trip to Stanford. It’s unknown whether he is injured.
The Cougar offense moved the ball decently well without them on Saturday. Tuel said an increased familiarity in Leach’s system is one of the reasons why.
“I understand what he’s looking for and asking for, and what makes this offense tick,” Tuel said.
“It’s starting to come together in that aspect, and (I’m) really just getting the ball to a bunch of receivers around the field instead of keying on just one guy.”