The narrow loss to No. 2 Oregon wasn’t considered a statement game, according to Cougar head coach, Mike Leach, but “a step in the right direction today.” He went on to say, “I think we just need to focus on practicing and improving, but I thought we played extremely hard the entire game.” WSU dropped this well-fought battle by a score of 38-31.
As I drove to Pullman from Spokane and passing the rolling wheat fields along the Palouse, I pondered the event I was going to witness and wondered if this would be an Oregon let down. I came to expect Oregon to run and pass all over the Cougar’s defense and score a lot of points and have its way with WSU. I also thought that I would see Connor Halliday throwing the ball all night long. Well, was I surprised? Or was it predictable?
Well, those 32 people spaced out two to three miles apart along Highway 195 waving their Cougar flags told me that this was not the same WSU squad from prior years. It’s like they knew something was special this day. There was an air on the WSU campus while walking around that the Crimson and Gray fans didn’t seem concerned or negative about the potential outcome. Washington State fought hard to the end, but fell short.
Having the lead 14-7 after the first quarter, both the offense and defense of WSU were rolling. The offense seemed like it couldn’t be stopped. Even the very few running plays were executed with some success. The Cougars were taking the Ducks out of the game at this point. The two touchdown receptions from Dom Williams was enough to keep the fans enjoying the sold out game. The 80-yard TD pass to Devon Allen was the sole highlight for Oregon that quarter.
The half-time score tied at 21 made it interesting to think of who will make the best adjustments at the half. In the past four games, the Cougars kept their games close, only to lose in the second half. The Cougar defense was stingy this night, swarming and pressuring Marcus Mariota. The defensive line was getting a solid push almost every down. And on the other side of the ball, the Coug’s O-line was giving Halliday a ton of time.
“Any quarterback will say, if you’re not getting hit — that doesn’t speed up the clock in your head — that’s huge,” is what Halliday said about the performance of his offensive line. Sacked one time speaks volumes about the protection he had and the time he spent in the pocket. The flying receivers and running backs all over the field kept eight of Oregon’s 3-4-4 defense scrambling to cover everyone, forcing the Ducks to rush only three guys each down.
Coach Leach approved of the offensive line play as well when he responded, “I thought the young offensive line did a lot of good things. I thought they played well together. I think this is probably the best game that they’ve played and will continue to develop throughout the season — get to know one another.” He said, “We need to view this as a foundation and build from there.”
The third quarter, WSU was shut out and Oregon had a touchdown. Coach Leach was asked what he saw different in that quarter. He answered, “A really good team that kept the football and did a good job.” He continued giving Oregon credit as a really good team — as did other players being interviewed.
WSU had only two possessions in the third quarter taking their second one into the fourth where they connected for their only field goal.
The next possession was a touchdown to tie the game at 31. Their final drive ended in losing the ball on downs. The Cougars ended the game putting up 499 total yards, passing for 436 of them. This was not surprise.
The Ducks showed a different offensive look in the fourth quarter using Byron Marshall out of the backfield and catching the ball about 12 yards downfield near the sideline. It was almost like the play was back-to-back and successful both times. Coach Leach was asked about this play and what kind of challenge it provided. The instant and classic response was, “Well, you draw it up and I’ll look at it and tell ya.” Then a pause of two or three seconds went by and Leach looked at the interviewer and asked, “You’ve got a pen, don’t ya?”
Defensive tackle, Xavier Cooper, was asked what helped him and the defense get that push and constant time in Oregon’s backfield. “I just think our coaches prepared us well this week.” He continued saying, “This week, we pushed ourselves hard. It’s the hardest we have been practicing and it showed out there.”
Washington State played their best game of the year against the Ducks. The media are already doubting the stability and talent Oregon has and marking them down because the game was not a blowout. Well, if they watched the same game I did, they would know that Oregon got away with a huge win in the books. The Cougars were inspired.
My take — if you didn’t enjoy the game, you have to enjoy any interview session with Coach Leach. My favorite response to the question, “To take an early lead against those guys do you feel like if maybe not affecting the players directly that it may open up some things?” Leach said, “I don’t understand the question, honestly. You’ve got to score as many points as you can. Uh … uh … I don’t understand the question.”
Top photo by Gary Breedlove