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‘Our guys have played themselves into this situation’: Washington State stayed the course to set up meaningful game with No. 5 Oregon

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

EUGENE – Throughout the two weeks ahead of Washington State’s biggest game of the year, Cougars players have been instructed to proceed as normal.

WSU has won four of its past five games, climbing out of the Pac-12 cellar and into the top three in the conference standings.

Whatever the Cougars are doing, it’s working. So why tinker with a proven method?

“Our guys have played themselves into this situation,” interim coach Jake Dickert said earlier this week, “and I think they understand that – to play meaningful games in November. You remember November.

“We’re going to stay the course and keep our same mindset and focus.”

WSU (5-4, 4-2), perhaps the hottest team in the conference, faces No. 5 Oregon (8-1, 5-1, No. 3 CFP) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Autzen Stadium in a Pac-12 matchup with major implications.

With a victory, the Cougars would replace the Ducks atop the North Division and keep alive their hopes for a conference title. WSU is also seeking to attain bowl eligibility for the sixth consecutive season – excluding its four-game 2020 campaign.

“Our guys know the mindset of what we’re going into: a good team in a good environment,” Dickert said. “I know we’ll be ready to play.

“It’s another faceless opponent. We gotta do what we can control. That’s the biggest thing: our job, our alignment, our assignments, our techniques. Let’s double down on the focus and the energy for the little things, and that’s gonna lead to big results.”

If they win out, the Ducks will punch their ticket to the College Football Playoff.

Their chance at a CFP berth slipped away in the penultimate week of the 2019 season, when the No. 6 Ducks absorbed a loss to unranked Arizona State.

“We’re not … focusing on the noise or any of that nonsense,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said. “It’s all about doing your job to the best of your ability and making sure the guy next to you does as well. So, we’re keeping it that simple.

“In November, you have to keep getting better.”

WSU got a head start on preparation with a well-placed bye last week, during which the Cougars installed 90% of their game plan for Oregon.

“The intensity is high. The focus is right where it needs to be,” Dickert said. “We’re seeing things for the second and sometimes third time now.”

On top of being rested, the visitors come to Eugene with momentum in tow after they thumped 16-point favorite Arizona State 34-21 on Oct. 30.

The Cougars are 13.5-point underdogs in this one, but they’ve been known to relish the dark-horse label.

“It’s something we’ve always preached – ‘CVE,’ Cougs versus Everybody,” slotback Calvin Jackson Jr. said. “It’s something we abide by. Two touchdown underdogs, three touchdowns – we don’t care. We’re just going to go out there and put our best football out there for the nation to see.”

It’ll take a complete performance to best the Ducks, who’ve made their living on exceptional play from both sides of the line of scrimmage.

On average, Oregon gashes opponents for over 200 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. Its front seven is captained by a sure-fire first-round NFL draft pick in edge-rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux and a sure-tackling linebacker in freshman phenom Noah Sewell. The two have combined for seven sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss.

“They’re detailed. They’re disciplined. They don’t turn the ball over,” Dickert said of Oregon. “You don’t turn into the No. 3 (CFP) team in the country without doing those things. … Our guys are going to be ready to meet that challenge.”

After rebounding from its sluggish start to the season and persevering through last month’s coaching turnover, WSU suddenly finds itself running smoothly. The Cougars showed no weak spots two weeks ago in the desert, leading Dickert to believe “this is the team we always knew we could be,” he said during his coach’s show Thursday.

WSU stayed the course, and the results have come.

“The biggest thing I tell the guys is: ‘However you perceive this game, it shouldn’t change the way you prepare,’ ” Dickert said.

“We have a standard, and the standard of the program is your best in everything you do, on and off the field, period.”