Fans can be forgiven for the sense of collective unease that settled on Martin Stadium early in the fourth quarter of Washington State’s homecoming game against California.
Fresh off one fourth-quarter collapse in Pullman last week, and with such a history for giving up late leads that “Coug it” can be found in regional newspapers at least as far back 2003, only the most optimistic denizens of Cougar Country did not get a little nervous when the Golden Bears scored their first touchdown of the game to pull within five points with 13 minutes left to play.
In such situations, any potential weakness is chronic and all of them are universalized. Is conditioning the issue? Does the team not have enough depth? Are the players mentally tough enough to make key plays at the end of a close game?
The subtext to each question, of course, is: Are we doomed to watch this team give away fourth-quarter leads for the rest of the season?
The fans need not have worried.
Cameron Ward and the WSU offense matched Cal’s quick touchdown drive with one of their own, just like Cal by hitting back-to-back passes of more than 30 yards, including the 37-yard touchdown to Renard Bell to provide some cushion.
The defense similarly reasserted itself, forcing an immediate three-and-out and effectively ending Cal’s realistic chances of a comeback. Just to be safe, the offense added another touchdown and suddenly the Cougars were cruising to an easy 28-9 victory.
By shutting the door on the visiting Golden Bears, the Cougars proved the manner of last week’s loss to be an aberration. In truth, the Cougars were a little lucky to be up on the visiting Ducks, who were ranked No. 15 at the time and finished with 196 more yards than WSU.
WSU may have a talent advantage over the visiting Golden Bears, but not a significant one. Certainly not the same talent gap that Oregon had over the Cougars a week earlier. If WSU lacked the conditioning or capable bench players to compete for all four quarters, Cal surely would have been able to expose it
The Cougars are 4-1 heading into the brunt of their Pac-12 schedule. Though it was called homecoming, Saturday’s game was more of a sendoff as the team embarks on back-to-back road trips to USC and Oregon State. They’ll get a bye after that, sure, but then return to Pullman to host the Pac-12’s most physical team: Utah.
Winning any one of those three games would keep the Cougars on track to handily qualify for the postseason with four winnable games left on the schedule. Heading into this season, a bowl game in Jake Dickert’s first full year at the helm was an easy marker of success.
More wins than the six needed to qualify is easily on the table. The only way WSU does not make a bowl game would be a second-half collapse. As the Cougars showed Saturday, this team is not prone to late collapses.
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