PULLMAN – In a small, underground room on the bottom level of their new football operations building, Washington State’s players and coaches gathered before midnight on Saturday and acknowledged that they had played a pretty good game, even in defeat.
Despite missing key contributors on both sides of the ball, a combination of heart and execution had the Cougars matching points with the No. 2 team in the country until the game’s final two drives.
“I thought we played very hard the entire game,” coach Mike Leach said. “I was proud of our effort and proud of some of the young guys that were able to perform at the level they did.”
“But we’ve got to get better,” he added.
In the 38-31 loss to Oregon, the Cougars reminded everyone that their season has yet to be defined, that two early losses to Rutgers and Nevada by no means mean that a bowl game is off the table.
That the Cougars were upset after a performance that was universally lauded outside the program shows there’s still fight in these Cougs.
“We’re kind of past the close game, feel good about that,” quarterback Connor Halliday said. “It’s just an opportunity, we let it slide.”
The Cougars still have time for a turnaround, but with a 1-3 record they can’t let many more opportunities like this last one go to waste.
The offensive line played great, the receivers dominated some good cornerbacks – Dom Williams scored a pair of touchdowns by running right past UO’s Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, a highly-regarded NFL prospect – and Halliday played well enough to beat any team if his support is there.
But can they do it without a partisan, sold-out and loud crowd at their back? Can they go on the road and summon the same fearlessness and enthusiasm that they showed against a team that was a 26-point favorite?
If last week’s game was an opportunity then consider this next one a test. The Cougars try to get better every week and, despite how good they looked on Saturday, they’ll need to improve to beat an undefeated Utah team in Salt Lake City.
Elevation will test WSU’s conditioning and depth, and even though Utes quarterback Travis Wilson isn’t Marcus Mariota, he’s another big, tough slinger who can pick up first downs on the run.
Washington State can build off its game against Oregon but the Utes just put a transformative beating on Michigan in the Big House.
This game won’t be easy and the Utes will be favored at home. But the Cougars looked ready to change their fortunes on Saturday night. Now, they just have to finish.
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