EUGENE, Oregon – If they can manage to spoil Oregon’s party, it’ll no doubt go down as one of the Washington State Cougars’ most significant wins in program history.
Considering everything this team has been through, it’s rather unbelievable that WSU has fashioned such an opportunity for itself. The Cougars have a chance this weekend to attain bowl eligibility, climb into first in the Pac-12 North and clear a path to the conference championship game.
They’re well aware of this game’s magnitude.
“There’s no hiding it. We all know what’s at stake this week,” safety George Hicks III said.
WSU (5-4, 4-2 Pac-12) meets the conference-leading Ducks (8-1, 5-1), who are ranked third in the College Football Playoff poll, on Saturday in Autzen Stadium. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. on ESPN.
“Our guys don’t have their heads under the sand,” interim coach Jake Dickert said. “They understand what each game could potentially mean as we go forward. We’re not looking ahead. We’re looking to this matchup. We’ve been preparing for it for two weeks, and we’ll be ready.”
They started the season 1-3 and lost half of their coaching staff last month, but the Cougars have nonetheless “played themselves into this situation,” Dickert said.
WSU has won four of its past five, with its only blemish being a two-point loss to No. 14 BYU. Coming off a bye week and a blowout of Arizona State, the Cougs have reason to feel confident.
They’re embracing this bright stage.
“We’re not going into this game thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re ranked in the CFP,’ ” slot Calvin Jackson Jr. said. “It’s cool for them. Kudos to them, but at the end of the day, we’re just going to put our best ball out there for the nation to see.”
WSU has played in a number of big games over the past decade or so. Consequential contests seem to come annually for the Cougars.
With a momentous one on tap, let’s look back at WSU’s most important regular-season games in recent memory.
2019 vs. Oregon State
While the result of this game wouldn’t factor much into the Pac-12 standings, WSU was striving to keep a postseason streak alive.
With two games remaining, the Cougs needed one more win to reach bowl eligibility for the fifth season in a row, and they delivered with a thriller at Martin Stadium.
Running back Max Borghi had guaranteed it a week earlier – WSU would come out on top.
Borghi walked it off with a 2-yard score in the final seconds. The Cougars won 54-53 after surging back from an 11-point deficit with about four minutes to play. The seesaw fourth quarter featured 48 total points.
“You can never give up,” quarterback Anthony Gordon said. “You never know when the game’s truly done.”
2018 vs. Oregon
Finally, after years of lobbying, ESPN’s College GameDay came to Pullman on Oct. 20.
And the underdog Cougars did not disappoint.
No. 25 WSU stunned 12th-ranked Oregon 34-20 in a raucous Martin Stadium environment for the program’s most memorable victory of all time.
The Gardner Minshew-led Cougars held onto a 27-0 halftime lead, closing the deal with a couple of clutch plays from slot Travell Harris and a touchdown reception from Dezmon Patmon with just under four minutes to play.
The crimson-clad faithful – many of whom had been up since 4 a.m. for the GameDay festivities – stormed the field after WSU jumped in front in the Pac-12 North race.
“It was incredible,” Minshew said. “There was so much energy in town this week, and we knew we had to bottle that up and use it.”
2017 vs. USC
WSU solidified itself as a competitive program on a national scale.
The Cougars put themselves back on the college football radar with one of their most notable wins in school history, downing fifth-ranked Southern Cal 30-27 on a wild Friday night on the Palouse in front of an ESPN audience.
No. 16 WSU claimed its first top-five win in 25 years and stopped the Trojans’ 13-game winning streak.
Running back Jamal Morrow scored on a shovel pass, then a drive later, broke off a chunk run to set up a go-ahead field goal. Linebacker Jahad Woods strip-sacked Sam Darnold on USC’s last-ditch possession to seal it.
“I think it’s just a stepping stone. We expect to win games like this,” quarterback Luke Falk said. “Hopefully, from here on out, guys will continue the tradition of competing in games like these.”
Apple Cups – 2016, ’17 and ’18
In three consecutive rivalry matchups with major implications between ranked Evergreen State schools, the Cougars underperformed and absorbed routs to fall out of the running for Pac-12 championships.
Turnover issues plagued No. 23 WSU, which surrendered 28 first-quarter points to No. 6 UW during a 45-17 loss in November 2016.
“I thought we made more out of it than what it was,” coach Mike Leach said then.
The 15th-ranked Huskies rode tailback Myles Gaskin (192 yards, four TDs) and four takeaways to a 41-14 triumph exactly one year later in Seattle.
“It sucks because we all know what was at stake for this game,” Falk said.
The 2018 loss was more aggravating – it knocked WSU out of College Football Playoff contention.
With snow blanketing Martin Stadium, the 16th-ranked Huskies leaned on Gaskin. Meanwhile, No. 7 WSU stuck with its air-it-out approach despite the inclement weather, and couldn’t get much going offensively in a 28-15 downer.
“We had a lot riding on this game,” Minshew said. “Big goals that we set for ourselves kinda depended on the outcome of this game.”
2015 vs. Stanford
The unranked Cougars, who’d go on to finish 9-4 and win the Sun Bowl, nearly replaced the No. 8 Cardinal in the driver’s seat for the North division.
WSU squandered a 12-point second-half lead and fell 30-28 against superstar running back Christian McCaffrey and Stanford in damp conditions at Martin Stadium.
A Stanford pick on a screen pass from Falk set up the Cardinal’s go-ahead field goal. WSU, which had connected on five field-goal tries earlier that night, missed a 43-yarder for the win as time expired.
“We should have won,” receiver Gabe Marks said.
With a victory, the Cougars would likely have met an eight-win USC team in the Pac-12 title game.
2013 vs. Utah
On a bitter November day in Pullman, the Cougars started hot and hung on through a back-and-forth second half to prevail 49-37, pocketing their sixth win in Year 2 of the Leach era to qualify for a bowl game for the first time in a decade.
WSU students rushed the field to celebrate the rare accomplishment. Looking back, the win seemed to signal that the program was on the rise, and that bowl games would soon become a regular occurrence.
“We’ve kinda been through the wringer,” quarterback Connor Halliday said after the win. “Been through a coaching change, been through two-win seasons, been through everything. And the guys that are still here – it shows those guys’ character.”
Halliday and receiver Dom Williams had bright performances, and the Coug defense registered two pick-6s in the first quarter to open a 21-0 lead before Utah surged back late to within a score.
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