PASADENA, Calif. – Like the wide receivers and running backs that flood the football field in search of open spaces in his Air Raid offense, Mike Leach’s expectations are a moving target.
Leach was answering a question about his offensive line, but may as well have been referring to his team when earlier this week he said, “We keep raising expectations. We try to ensure the fact that they don’t live up to them but we steadily improve. I think they’re improving.”
So while a win by Washington State (6-3, 4-2 Pac-12) on Saturday over No. 22 UCLA (7-2, 4-2) would surely satisfy the expectations and desires of even the most bullish observers of WSU football, the Cougars will simply set the bar higher to a height they can’t yet reach.
Until they do.
“I think the biggest thing is just taking the most out of each play and pushing through on that,” Leach said. “And collectively, our team’s doing a good job of that and reinforcing it from one guy to the next and just doing it for 60 minutes.”
Saturday’s game against the Bruins will be strength-on-strength. WSU and UCLA are No. 1 and No. 2 in the Pac-12, respectively, in passes of 10 yards or more. But, UCLA and WSU are No. 1 and No. 2 in the conference, respectively, in preventing the same 10-or-more yard passes.
UCLA’s defense played well in its first Air Raid test, holding California’s Jared Goff to 5.6 yards per pass attempt in UCLA’s 40-24 win.
It will doubtlessly be an emotional game for the Cougars, since this game is a homecoming for many of WSU’s players and the team hasn’t played in Los Angeles since its 2013 win at USC.
Conversely, the Bruins have big matchups on tap with Utah and USC with the Pac-12 South division crown at stake; it’s not impossible they overlook a WSU team that has been winning lately, but does not yet carry a reputation as a conference bully.
But UCLA would be remiss to overlook a WSU team whose season-long improvement could be graphed with a very tidy ascending line, beginning with a dreadful loss in its season opener and culminating with last Saturday’s 21-0 fourth-quarter advantage over an Arizona State team that began the season with playoff aspirations.
The Sun Devils have not improved every week, nor have most teams. UCLA had a pair of midseason hiccups, but Saturday will show whether or not the Bruins can match the Cougars’ ascension.
And WSU has shown that weekly improvement is the hallmark of a good team.
“I think that’s what everybody battles to do and that’s what the good teams do,” Leach said. “Everybody would be a good team if it was real easy. But the things is, if you’re going to be a good team, you have to do something different than the other guy. Because if you do what the other guy does, that’s who you are, you’re the other guy.”
And if nothing else, the Cougars have shown this season that they’re not the other guy. They’re not anybody for long, because they’re constantly pushing the bar and trying to be something different in the never-ending chase of their own expectations.
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