PULLMAN – So you’re looking for a sure-thing winner in the Pac-12 these days?
Look no further.
There isn’t such a thing.
And yet for a shade more than four hours on Saturday night, the Washington State Cougars had a chance to be that very thing.
Yes, the Cougars, who underachieved against Rutgers, who were helpless against Nevada, who seemed hell-bent-for-left-for-dead if only the schedule hadn’t served up relief in the form of Portland State – they were positioned to be the steady Eddies of West Coast football.
They were positioned to stand alone atop the Pac-12 North standings.
To insert their own (very) dark horse into the Heisman picture, especially once quarterback Connor Halliday broke the all-time NCAA single-game record with 734 passing yards.
The Cougs – and Halliday – were going to be the nightcap toast to an incredible day of college football.
And then they weren’t – a 19-yard field goal attempt by Quentin Breshears slicing just wide of the right upright, a kick that would have salvaged an incredible bit of nonsense into the win column but instead cost the Cougs a 60-59 crusher at the hands of Cal.
Sixty-nine yards the Cougars drove in the game’s final 3 minutes, 18 seconds – all the way to the Cal 1-yard line and to the height of drama.
And then they left it to a transfer kicker on third down after a night of relentless swashbuckling.
It wasn’t failing to take a knee in the bowl game, but it was second-guessable – to the point that WSU coach Mike Leach was second-guessing it himself.
“I shouldn’t have called a timeout then,” Leach said, referencing the Cougars using their final timeout with 19 seconds left after running back Gerard Wicks had come up tantalizingly short of the end zone on second down.
“In hindsight, I wish we would have called another play.”
Not that it was unanimous.
“That was my move,” Halliday insisted. “I mean, it’s a 19-yard field goal.”
And yet after having a front-row seat in watching Utah fritter away a 21-point lead in a dizzying Wazzu victory last week, the Cougars should know all too well that 19-yarders – or 9s – are no gimmes. Not in the context of Cougars football.
Of course, the message ever seems to get that message – so it’s hardly a surprise that the students resumed their grand tradition of bailing at halftime, this time with WSU seemingly in control with a 24-13 lead.
Maybe they miscalculated that they’d already seen Halliday at his good-Connor best – five minutes before intermission, he was already 18 of 22 for 286 yards and three touchdowns. Maybe they thought the only thing that was going to screw it up was a Pac-12 zebra. Or maybe they wanted to make last call at The Coug, not an easy thing in the era of the Larry Scott Channel.
Having been told that Saturday night’s Cal-Wazzu wingding was going to be a carnival of aerial and non-tackling wonderment, there was no need to actually hang around and have it confirmed.
Even if the second half made the first Woody Hayes Throwback Night on the Big Ten Network.
Fifty-six points in the third quarter alone. Back-to-back kickoff returns for touchdowns by Cal’s Trevor Davis. Sixty five minutes on the clock of pure fun, if not pure football.
“It’s a weird feeling,” Halliday said. “(It’s feeling) ‘We’re going to win this game no matter what – the game’s on our shoulder offensively.’ But after every time you score, you realize you’re going to need another one.
“But bottom line, we’ve got to find a way to get some kind of stop.”
Well, certainly. Except if you’re commanding an offense that you believe no one can stop, what’s to stop the guys on the other sideline – running virtually the same stuff – from thinking exactly the same thing?
The Cougars had done a fair job at bottling up the Bears in the first half. Quarterback Jared Goff had thrown for just a single score, and Cal was just two of eight on third down.
“They threw some double-move stuff at us the second half, and our tempo starting the third quarter wasn’t as good as it might be,” said Leach – who called a timeout to gather his defense and chew on them a little bit.
“We just needed to tackle better,” he said.
And they didn’t.
Now the Cougars are back in the great backwash that is the Pac-12 North. Four Pac-12 teams – Oregon, UCLA, Stanford and USC – entered the weekend in the Top 25. All four lost. Two of those were part of an unprecedented swoon in which five of the AP’s top eight were upset.
And yet none of them probably feel as bad as the 2-4 Cougs – even the NCAA record holder.
“It’ll be fun to look back on it when I’m 30 years old and talking to friends,” Halliday said. “But right now, it doesn’t mean much.”
It means there’s no sure thing – not in this league.
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