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WSU’s loss to EWU has little practical effect on Cougars’ season

Washington State head coach Mike Leach, talking to his players during Saturday’s game against EWU, said afterward that the Cougars can learn from the loss. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State head coach Mike Leach, talking to his players during Saturday’s game against EWU, said afterward that the Cougars can learn from the loss. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

PULLMAN – Well, better dramatic than boring, right? Particularly when it comes to the preseason.

A couple weeks ago Washington State coach Mike Leach said he wished college football teams played a preseason game or two, like they do in the NFL.

To be fair to Leach, he also said he wants those games played in the spring. But the coach still mostly gets his wish.

The Cougars lost their season-opener 45-42 to eastern Washington rival Eastern Washington. (Don’t think they’re rivals? See if Eagles fans exercise their bragging rights this week).

The game was a punch to the guts of WSU fans who have been waiting since late December to watch the Cougars play a game, and that’s a long time to build up to such a letdown.

The game does count in the standings: The Cougars added one digit to the number on the right side of the win-loss column. But unless WSU wins five games, falling one win short of bowl eligibility, then that is the only practical effect the game against EWU had on their season.

With the exception of the 10-ish teams with any sort of plausible shot at the College Football Playoffs, nonconference games are indistinguishable from NFL preseason games, other than the lack of postgame cuts.

The Cougars do not have some resume that is now blemished by the EWU loss; bowl games mostly pick in a predetermined order based on conference standings. Even those bowls that can drop down and pick a more desirable team do so for strictly monetary reasons, not to punish some program for losing one nonconference game three months earlier.

Last year, the Cougars lost to Portland State and went on to play in the Sun Bowl. If WSU had beaten the Vikings and nothing else changed, the Cougars would have played in the Sun Bowl all the same.

Leach and the Cougars try to treat each game as if it holds equal importance. But in terms of bowl destination, the Pac-12 North games count, the other Pac-12 games count a little less and nonconference games count not at all.

That’s not to say that the things that happened on the field during WSU’s loss had no impact. The Cougars will certainly notice the absence of starting free safety Robert Taylor next weekend at Boise State, who was tagged with a targeting penalty that will keep him out of the first half of Saturday’s game.

The broken coverages, inability to put pressure on EWU quarterback Gage Gubrud and offensive penalties cost the Cougars dearly, and if they are indicative of recurring trends then, well, WSU is not going to win many games in 2016.

But WSU looked a lot better on Saturday than it did during its last loss to an FCS foe – the aforementioned 20-14 debacle against PSU.

“We’ve been in this situation before. We can learn from it and grow as a team, or we can let this one get to us and focus on it all season and let it be a low point for us,” Leach said. “I think, the type of guys we have in this locker room, we are going to learn from it, be done with it tomorrow, move on and focus on Boise State.”

If the Cougars are a good team, one that can qualify for a bowl without slipping in with a .500 record – or heck, even a Rose Bowl team – then Saturday’s loss did little to diminish their chances.

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