PULLMAN – Washington State players are spending a few more hours soaking in cold tubs this week and the athletic training tables inside the football ops building are surely getting more use as the Cougars try to recharge from an 11-game slog that had them playing meaningful snaps every 7-8 days for a span of 2½ months.
When the Pac-12 schedule-makers assembled the 2017 slate, they wedged WSU’s bye week between the final two games of the regular season. That may have seemed like a cruel gesture at one point, considering as many as four defensive starters injured throughout the first few months, but now the timing feels fortuitous. The Cougars are ranked 15th nationally, they’re about as healthy as a team can hope to be 80 days into a college football season and they’re still alive in the Pac-12 North race. Even better, they’re in command of it.
“We’re right there at the front door,” senior tackle Cole Madison said. “We’ve just got to open it.”
On paper, it looks easy. WSU (9-2, 6-2) can unseat Washington (8-2, 5-2) as the North champion by beating the Huskies in next week’s Apple Cup game in Seattle. In theory, it should be even easier than that. The Cougars have spent the last six days in recovery mode and they’ve held just one team practice since beating Utah in Salt Lake City last Saturday. Not to mention, they’ve broken out their Apple Cup study guides a week early – something the Huskies won’t get to until Sunday.
“I’ve been watching a good amount of film this week, watching some of their previous games,” Madison said. “But mostly getting my body right. Eleven in a row, that’ll take a toll on you and a lot of the guys have had that same mindset.”
So the Cougars will head into their biggest Apple Cup to date with sharp minds and fresh legs. They’d appear to be in great shape to capitalize on their bye week – it just hasn’t always worked out that way.
Over the course of Mike Leach’s WSU tenure – not counting the 2017 campaign – the Cougars have had seven bye weeks in five seasons. (The Pac-12 slipped two bye weeks into the2013 and ’14 seasons). Coming out of those off-weeks, Leach’s WSU teams have recorded just two wins compared to five losses.
The coach theorized that perhaps his team had just played some of its toughest opposition in games following byes.
“Competition I’m sure has something to do with it,” Leach said after Thursday’s practice in Pullman. “It’s hard to decipher whether it’s bye week or who you play, because everyone’s pretty good.”
Indeed, four of those five losses came to Pac-12 foes ranked inside the AP Top 25. Those four also came during the first three years of the coach’s tenure, while Leach was still in the early stages of reconstructing a program that had won just nine games in the four seasons prior to his arrival.
By itself, WSU’s post-bye week record (2-5) might not imply anything about how the Cougars perform with time off. But Leach’s teams have also tripped up in season openers (1-5, including 2017) and bowl games (1-2). So, over the last six seasons, the Cougars have gone just 4-12 when they’ve had more than a week to prepare.
Perhaps they’ve already started to reverse the trend. WSU beat Oregon after its bye week in 2016 and though the Cougars were unsuccessful in the Holiday Bowl, they trounced Montana State in the 2017 season opener.
Leach doesn’t mind his players getting a jump on the Huskies, but the coach also cautions, “You can go stale if you’re not careful.”
Madison believes this group is conscientious of that – with one exception: the starting quarterback.
“The only person who does that might be Luke (Falk),” he said. “Luke’s an analyst, has to analyze everything. But besides that, I think we’re pretty good there.”