PULLMAN – Last season, the Cougars used their extra bowl practices in part to give their youngest players more repetitions and work than they received in the regular season.
Regular contributors this season such as Cole Madison, Daniel Ekuale, Gerard Wicks, Jamal Morrow and others first started to extensively train under the Washington State coaches during those bowl practices because WSU wasn’t preparing for an immediate game.
While WSU will likely use the upcoming bye week to hold a couple extra underclassmen scrimmages and take a longer look at some younger players, there isn’t the same need to spend more time with the players the team will rely on next season.
After all, those guys are already playing.
Only four players that started against Oregon State last weekend are seniors, two on offense and two on defense; the Cougars have had four true freshmen play at defensive back alone.
The players that are getting in the games right now for the Cougars will mostly be back next year, and while the Cougars’ record means that they won’t have those extra bowl practices, they’ll be able to spend this bye week building off a win.
Washington State’s offense worked on Saturday largely because of a stellar performance from first-time starting quarterback Luke Falk. But the Cougars were able to come up with a 39-32 win on the road because the defense and special teams combined to give WSU its most complete effort of the season.
“Yeah, it sure could be,” said Mike Leach afterward. “We played good on special teams. When we got out of the first quarter we played pretty good on defense, I thought.”
It started on offense. Faced with an early 10-0 deficit, Falk was occasionally brilliant and always acceptable, leading the Cougars to scores or short field-goal attempts on seven of their 10 full drives.
Afterwards, some of the players admitted that it was an emotional game, playing the first time without injured quarterback Connor Halliday. But Falk’s composed demeanor was contagious and the game’s sentiment never became a distraction.
“The biggest thing that’s ahead of schedule or that has been impressive is the poise,” Leach said of Falk. “The physics of throwing the ball, the talent, the sense in the pocket – we saw all that in practice. And we saw some of the poise in practice.”
Saturday’s game was just the second time in the last six games that the Cougars did not give up a special-teams touchdown.
The defense gave up the fewest points since a Sept. 27 win over Utah, despite continuing to dive even deeper into the cornerback depth after Daquawn Brown was ejected in the fourth quarter.
And the Cougars fended off multiple late surges by the Beavers, even as close plays started breaking for the home team.
“We finally finished this weekend,” Falk said. “Like I said (earlier), great team win. All cylinders of the ball – offense, defense and special teams — and I just thought we finished really well.”
It should be noted that OSU is no Arizona, USC or even California. The Beavers have at least two fewer wins than every other Pac-12 team the Cougars have played this season.
Whether or not Saturday’s victory indicated improvement, however, it was WSU’s first positive ending in more than a month and put the Cougars in a good mood heading into a bye week that will be critical for WSU’s improvement heading into the final two games and into next season.