PULLMAN — Washington State’s football team hasn’t often been favored in conference games over the last half decade. But the oddsmakers in Las Vegas have the Cougars winning by the slimmest of margins in their matchup Saturday night against Oregon State.
If the team can turn the bookies into prophets by winning at home, they’ll be 5-2 and have won more games than any WSU football team since 2007.
More significantly, they’ll be just a single win away from qualifying for a bowl game, a symbolic threshold that denotes a team that has broken the cycle of perennial rebuilding and is ready for contention.
The Cougars insist that none of that matters.
“I haven’t really thought
about it,” safety Deone Bucannon said this week. “It is crazy, but our coaches and our teammates, we just look at it as one game at a time. We don’t look at everything, we just focus on one week and getting better each day.”
Bucannon’s words are reflections of the “one week at a time” mantra of his coaches.
“I feel like we’ve got to improve this week, and win one game a week. We’ve got to prepare and play the best we can against Oregon State. It’s kind of a repetitious process,” coach Mike Leach said dryly.
But whether WSU’s players and coaches are living in denial, or merely paying lip service to an unspoken code of humility expressed through well-worn axioms, it must at least be somewhat evident what this game would mean for their chances at a bowl game. And what a bowl game would mean for the growth of the program.
Beating the Beavers carries large implications in its own right. OSU is a rival in the Pacific Northwest, and is similar to WSU culturally. The schools share an academic footprint. They attract the similar people, and often go head-to-head for recruits.
But the joy of bragging rights over the Beavers pales in significance to WSU playing in its first bowl game since the 2003 season.
Qualifying for the postseason means weeks of extra coach-supervised practices for the underclassmen to prepare for next season. It means a nationally televised game to market to future recruits and to fans who feel disconnected from the program after a decade of losing. It means a reward for the players still on the roster, and reassurance that their toil and sweat is paying off.
That validation is evident to kicker Andrew Furney, who breaks the facade momentarily before falling back into the party line. As a senior, Furney has seen the good times and the bad, and knows that the bad have been much rarer of late. This is Furney’s last chance at a winning season, a fact of which he is acutely aware.
“Great, great start to the season towards where we want to go: obviously, a bowl game, and to keep winning,” Furney said. “I can even say it’s the most wins I’ve had here and there’s six games left. But, obviously we’ve got to go one game at a time. We can’t look at the bowl or whatever.”
However far this winning path may lead the Cougars, a victory over OSU on Saturday night will be of paramount importance.
OREGON STATE (4-1 OVERALL, 2-0 PAC-12) AT WSU (4-2, 2-1)
7:30 p.m., Martin Stadium, Pullman
TV: ESPN2. Radio: 770-AM.
The series: WSU leads, 48-46-3. Oregon State has won the past two meetings and five of the past six. WSU’s last victory over Oregon State in Pullman was a 36-30 win on Oct. 25, 2003.
KEYS TO A WSU VICTORY
Get pressure on the QB: Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion leads the conference in passing yards with 2,018. His success is partially due to the fact that he has all day to throw the football, because the Beavers rank third in the Pac-12 with just six sacks allowed. The Cougars notched three sacks in their win over Cal last week, and nearly had a few more. If they can collapse the pocket and force Mannion to make quick decisions, it will make key No. 2 much easier.
Come up with interceptions: The last time these two teams played Mannion threw three interceptions. The Cougars’ defense ranks first in the conference with nine passes picked off in 2013, and WSU’s coaches emphasize takeaways. If WSU’s defenders can end drives by snagging a few of Mannion’s passes it’ll go a long way toward giving WSU the win.
Bend, but don’t break: Last week against the Golden Bears, the Cougars gave up more than 500 passing yards, but still only let Cal into the end zone twice. Both of those touchdowns came thanks to secondary breakdowns that resulted in explosive plays. The Beavers will get their passing yards, but it won’t matter if WSU can once again keep the other team out of the end zone.
Win the special teams battle: Punter Mike Bowlin had a dismal showing against Stanford, but bounced back last week. He put three balls inside Cal’s 20-yard line, and his ability to replicate that will be critical against the Beavers. Of equal importance will be WSU’s ability to put points on the board, so making field goals will be crucial. Fortunately, the Cougars have one of the country’s best in kicker Andrew Furney.
Jacob Thorpe, The Spokesman-Review