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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington State rewind: Loss to Stanford shows Cougs’ problems are multifaceted — at best

Washington State head coach Jake Dickert reaches out to edge Ron Stone Jr. in the first half of a game against Stanford on Saturday, Nov. 4, 20234, at Gesa Field in Pullman, Wash.  (Geoff Crimmins/For The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Zoom in close enough on Washington State’s latest loss, a 10-7 setback at the hands of Stanford Saturday evening, and you realize the conversation around this game – and the Cougars in general – might have changed entirely if two plays unfolded differently.

Both came on dropped interceptions from WSU. The first, in the opening moments of the third quarter, went off the hands of safety Kapena Gushiken, who had a pick-six delivered right to his chest, but he couldn’t hold on. He had nothing but open space in front of him, and if he’s able to secure it, Washington State takes a 14-0 lead – instead of Stanford marching down the field and tying it at 7-all.

The second drop arrived later in the game, with a shade over six minutes to play, Stanford in the red zone and trying to unlock a 7-7 tie. Quarterback Ashton Daniels ran into pressure, so he drifted back and lofted one toward the corner of the end zone – where two Cougars converged to grab it. Safety Sam Lockett and cornerback Jamorri Colson both leaped in front of the pass. Neither could hold on. Incomplete.

The Cardinal only got a field goal out of that drive, but those three points gave them the lead, the final margin.

How differently are we talking about the Cougars’ outing if both of those plays go their way? If even one of them does?

After the game, WSU’s offense bore the brunt of the concern, and perhaps rightfully so. The Cougars’ offense went three-and-out with a chance to tie the game, quarterback Cam Ward took two sacks that pushed back kicker Dean Janikowski and forced him to miss a go-ahead field goal and, once again, WSU could not run the ball. The Cougars totaled 4 rushing yards.

“There’s a physicality to running the ball, period,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said. And there’s a toughness to running the ball, period – and we gotta put it on tape. … You can sit up here and make excuses. It’s physicality and wanting to move people. I’ll always be about that. And we just don’t have it right now.”

But how much are we talking about those issues if Gushiken scores on that interception, or if WSU snares that pick in the end zone? Are we letting some of the Cougars’ offensive issues slide and praising their defense’s sterling outing? If they eke out a win, ending their losing streak and inching one win away from bowl eligibility, how different a light does their season get painted in?

“Had an opportunity – Sam and ’Morri kinda came together in the corner of the end zone there and kind of knocked it out of each other’s hands,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said, “but really proud of those two guys as individuals.”

These games swing on the margins, and not one contest goes by without one team missing a handful of opportunities. The players are human and the coaches are too. It wouldn’t be a college football game without those realities. Still, for WSU, those two missed chances sting – particularly now that its future looks bleak, both in the short and long term.

The Cougars now must win two of their next three games to return to a bowl, and now that they’re in free-fall, this three-week stretch to end the regular season – at Cal, vs. Colorado, at Washington – feels less like two winnable games and more like three tall tasks.

“It’s everything. Bowl eligibility is the standard around here,” WSU edge Brennan Jackson said. “We don’t fall short of that. Especially being a captain, I don’t wanna be part of a team that doesn’t achieve that. So that’s my biggest thing to these guys – that’s a standard we need to uphold.”

Washington State’s streak of seven straight bowl appearances (sans the COVID-shortened 2020 season) is now in peril. That’s thanks to a constellation of issues, and for the Cougars, the worst part is that it’s always something different.

In this loss to Stanford, it was WSU’s offense, which vanished like aliens had invaded and zapped their powers. The Cougars’ offensive line yielded two sacks, often unable to hold up against the Cardinal’s four-man rush, and they struggled to run block, which is a big reason why their offense managed just 4 rushing yards.

But a week prior, the problem was the Cougars’ defense, which failed to stop the one thing Arizona State wanted to do: Run the ball. The Sun Devils gashed the Cougars for 235 rushing yards, and because of a host of missed tackles, the visitors couldn’t ground what remains the Pac-12’s worst offense.

The week before that, Washington State’s defense struggled against the high-powered Oregon run offense, which was understandable – but Ward showed a troubling indecisiveness in the pocket, and even with time to throw, he couldn’t find much of anyone besides receiver Lincoln Victor.

The Cougars have lots of problems, which makes them similar to most every team in the country. They just experience different ones by the week, which is bad news for a team that can’t find a way to stop what is now a five-game losing streak.

“We’ve always said we can beat anybody if we don’t beat ourselves,” Dickert said. “I think there’s been things in the last five games where we beat ourselves. Football is the ultimate team game. I did not think Stanford could hold us to seven points, and I thought we could hold Arizona State to less than 38. We haven’t played a team game yet.”

WSU, which still does not have a conference home, has three more opportunities to play a bowl game. Otherwise, the Cougars’ season goes up in flames, and their program’s future goes from hazy to downright bleak.