PULLMAN – Over the past three weeks the Washington State football team has been the very definition of competitive, winning a game by a single point and then losing one by the same margin Saturday night.
That three-game stretch began Sept. 20 when the Cougars (2-4, 1-2 Pac-12) took Oregon, then the country’s No. 2 team, down to the wire and it would have been even closer if not for a ghastly no-call on WSU’s second-to-last offensive play.
The team has played half of its regular season, and for a month it has looked like a good Pac-12 team, one that may not win the North Division but is certainly good enough to play in the postseason and probably knock off a few contenders along the way.
The problem is that team only emerged in flashes the first two weeks, losses to Rutgers and Nevada, and now has to play catch-up for its record to reflect its ability.
The Cougars are bound by a philosophy of treating the overall record as anathema but as fans and writers we are bound by no such restrictions. To make a bowl game – an objective that these days is essentially a proxy for finishing with a .500 or better record – the Cougars have to win four of their next six games.
Quarterback Connor Halliday understands as well as anyone the virtues of treating each game as a puzzle rather than a piece of one, and avoiding the pitfalls and distractions of trying to decide where each game fits within the larger season.
But he understands the larger context, too, and acknowledged it after Saturday night’s 60-59 loss to Cal while answering an unrelated question about breaking the passing record.
“We’re 2-4 now and we’re really in a must-win situation going down to Stanford,” Halliday said. “We really can’t fall to 2-5 with the goals that we have as a football team.”
And so the Cougars must win on Friday on the road against a team that also has its back against the wall, and is backed by the country’s No. 2 overall defense. There’s no chance of catching the Cardinal off guard now that the two-time defending Pac-12 champions are already in danger of falling out of the rankings.
This will be a game between two programs that badly need a victory: Stanford because it already has two losses, and WSU because it has only two wins. The Cardinal offense hasn’t looked good in losses to USC and Notre Dame, and really, it didn’t look very good in a win at Washington.
The Stanford defense has been great but so has the WSU offense, and something has to give. The Cardinal are allowing just 107 passing yards per game while WSU receivers River Cracraft and Vince Mayle each exceed that in receiving yards per game while Isiah Myers is close with 95.7.
Stanford Stadium is not one of the conference’s most imposing venues and WSU has won four Pac-12 road games in the last two seasons and just one conference game at home.
The Cougars have played well enough lately that even a win at Stanford wouldn’t necessarily tell us anything we don’t know about this team, except maybe that Halliday’s goals for WSU are still within reach.
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