PULLMAN – The nonconference portion of Washington State’s football schedule is over and the season’s first third was largely disappointing. The Cougars enter Pac-12 play with a long and narrow road to a bowl game, but at least Saturday’s 59-21 win over Portland State established a starting point.
Quarterback Connor Halliday looked like he was performing a skeleton passing drill in practice, leading the offense to a school-record 706 yards of offense. The team’s red-zone struggles were nowhere to be found with WSU scoring on all seven trips inside the PSU 20-yard line, six of them ending in touchdowns.
“The biggest thing is, what I hope is that it reinforces that we just need to focus on little individual things,” coach Mike Leach said. “Games are just a byproduct of a bunch of plays, one after the next, regardless of what side of the ball you’re on and we need to make sure we understand that.”
It may have been against an FCS opponent, but it was still a game, one the Cougars needed to win handily if only to show they could translate their practice-field success into a more competitive situation.
“Our focus was on trying to make sure our guys focus on all the specific things they did in practice,” Leach said. “And so as a result today, our production was similar to what we do in practice and I think that’s the most important thing that we did.”
Of course, it’s one thing to turn a game into a practice against players who weren’t offered the chance to be part of WSU’s scout teams. It will be quite another to have that same kind of carryover from drills on Saturday, when the Cougars face a team that makes even the conference’s best players look like tackling dummies.
The Cougars won’t get any time to ease into the Pac-12 schedule with No. 2 Oregon coming to Pullman this week. Simply surviving and avoiding any major injuries is a fair goal against the Ducks, who have won seven of their last nine games against ranked opponents and have lost to an unranked team only once since November 2009.
But the Cougars have played the Ducks close since Leach took over, trailing by just four points at halftime in 2012. In last year’s contest, the Cougars rattled star quarterback Marcus Mariota early and matched or outscored Oregon in the second and fourth quarters.
A win would change the entire tenor of the season, in the same way that the upset losses to Rutgers and Nevada diminished what can now be considered reasonable expectations for the Cougs.
But another good showing, again performing like it shows it can in practice, would set up the team well for two critical games at Utah and at home against California.
The Cougars took the first step this weekend. Now they need a few leaps.
“That first win, it’s a big relief off our back right now,” cornerback Daquawn Brown said. “We just had to get one under our belt. … I feel like we were supposed to get that one off the other two. We know what we have to do. We have to get back to work this week. We have to get ready for Oregon.”
But Oregon, you can’t practice for that.
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