PULLMAN – If Washington State’s losses to UCLA, Arizona State and Oregon indicate anything, it’s that a mustache isn’t the only thing distinguishing the 2018 Cougars from the 2019 Cougars.
While WSU fans would’ve enjoyed another season with Gardner Minshew at quarterback, if there’s any attribute they could have back from the 2018 Cougars, it might be the group’s ability to finish off opponents in the fourth quarter.
That’s the difference between a team now merely playing for postseason eligibility entering Saturday’s game at Cal (4:30 p.m., Pac-12 Networks) and one that may still be in the driver’s seat in the Pac-12 North, targeting a division championship and everything that comes with it.
It isn’t lost on most WSU fans – and surely every player and coach – that a little bit of late-game finesse could be the thing separating an average team from a great one. That the Cougars have lost three Pac-12 games by a combined 10 points.
That, had each of those swung their way, they’d probably be ranked top-15 in the country, on top of the North and three wins shy from hitting the double-digit wins plateau for the second straight season.
That a handful of plays may be the difference between 4-4, 1-4 and 7-1, 4-1.
“Obviously we’ve had some tight games that came down to the very end and we’re just right there and we know we’re right there,” running back Max Borghi said.
Wearing a slick vintage 1998 Rose Bowl hat to a post-practice media availability last Thursday, Borghi wouldn’t go as far to say this Cougar team carries the right blend of talent, depth and toughness to vie for a spot in Pasadena, but he and his teammates also acknowledge this reality: “The Grandaddy of Them All” would still be in play had they scored one more touchdown – or eliminated one – in three of their four losses.
“We know we’re a real great team,” he said, “and we’ve just got to finish and that’s what we’re really going to emphasize going into this bye week and this next week of practice, is just finishing plays and leaving no plays on the field like we did.”
WSU may have been more than a few whiffed tackles and interceptions away from stealing a win in Salt Lake City, where the Cougars were thumped 38-13 by a Utah team now in control of the Pac-12 South.
But the Cougars, rightfully so, were left lamenting many of the things that slipped away in a 67-63 loss to UCLA, when they conceded six turnovers and gave up 50 points in the second half.
Then two games later, when ASU drove 75 yards in less than two minutes to score the decisive touchdown in a 38-34 win.
And nine days ago, when the defense splintered again down the stretch, allowing No. 11 Oregon to race down the field and set up a game-winning field goal, sealing a 37-35 victory in Eugene.
If only the Cougars could recapture some of the late-game mojo that allowed last year’s team to win four of the five games that were decided by six points or fewer. After the Cougars lost a three-point decision at USC, they went on to knock off Utah 28-24, they edged Stanford 41-38, they outlasted Cal 19-13 and they upended Iowa State 28-26.
Minshew and the offense orchestrated late scoring drives to lift the Cougars in a few of those games. The defense contributed late stops and turnovers in others. And kicker Blake Mazza was clutch in the defining moment of his rookie season, draining the game-winner against Stanford.
“Well, we just have to close it out,” coach Mike Leach said Monday. “I think a couple of them if we played together better on defense, as far as closing it out, I think some of the disruption we’ve had on defense has hurt that effort a little bit. But I do think they’re getting better and coming together. Then a couple of those games, we played these teams better than anyone else has because they’re qualitity teams we’re playing against. None of them are bad teams, so that’s just part of it.”
In their four losses, the Cougars have been outscored 101-57 in the second half and they’ve won the second half only once (Oregon). In their four wins, the Cougars have outscored the opposition 99-24 in the second half.
“It’s all a part of the process. It’s all a process,” cornerback George Hicks III said. “We’ve been taking steps forward, getting better week in, week out and right now just getting over the hump, which I feel like we’ve started. We took a big step forward in Oregon and coming in against Cal is going to be full-fledged.”