PULLMAN –To listen to the Washington State football players and coaches you’d think they’d never heard of a bowl game, and would reject any invitation to postseason play. Whenever the topic comes up the subject is quickly changed to the team’s focus on their next practice or contest.
That refusal to acknowledge the potential prize is allowing the Cougars to play free of pressure and distraction despite sitting just one win away from being bowl eligible for the first time since 2006.
“We’re not thinking about (a bowl game),” said linebacker Darryl Monroe. “We’re just thinking about the next win. If you start thinking about a bowl game you get a lack of focus, might get too hyped and lose the next one. So we’re just focused on playing Utah next week.”
Monroe’s answer reflects the values of the Cougars’ leader, head coach Mike Leach, who has always espoused the necessity of focusing on getting better every practice, focusing on every contest and not worrying about the big picture.
During his first press conference as the Cougars coach Leach was asked if he had a “five-year plan.”
“My plan is to win one game a week,” Leach said to laughter and applause. He’s never wavered.
It’s likely that few other programs in WSU’s situation could maintain the Cougars’ indifference to ending a decade-long bowl drought. Under Leach’s watch, the team has shown rapid improvement, going from three wins last season to five this year, with two games left to play.
“We played a murderer’s row there for a period of time in a concentrated fashion and I don’t think anyone else has,” Leach said referring to the team’s games against Stanford, Oregon State, Oregon and Arizona State with only Cal to provide a lesser opponent. “But came through it and they never lost their focus and came out to play and did well today.”
That ascension could be accelerated by the 15 extra practices granted bowl teams by the NCAA. The game would also provide invaluable marketing for the revamped WSU program, and put fans in the seats of the recently renovated Martin Stadium.
Most importantly it would energize a fan base that hasn’t traveled for a post-Apple Cup game since 2003, and is still recovering from years of uncompetitive play. Late start times, bye weeks and a Thursday night game haven’t helped bring WSU fans back to Pullman. But a bowl game might.
None of that entered the minds of the Cougars as they took down Arizona on the road this past weekend.
“It doesn’t really enter my thoughts,” receiver Dom Williams said. “I’m getting ready for tomorrow’s practice. You just have to take it practice at a time, game at a time, play at a time.”
The team isn’t thinking about postseason play and it’s anyone’s guess there will be fanfare or even acknowledgement when the team eventually does pass the barrier. In all likelihood they’ll be too busy focusing on their next game. But if the Cougars can take care of business just one more time they’ll have a welcome surprise waiting for them at the season’s end.