Without much prompting, Washington State athletic director Bill Moos says he does not want to describe the Cougars’ early-season aberration as a blessing in disguise.
Which means that in some ways, it probably was.
WSU lost its season opener, 24-17, at home to the Portland State Vikings, who received $525,000 just for playing the game. The Vikings are members of college football’s FCS division. They play in the Big Sky Conference. They are a revived program now having a fine season but were not supposed to compete with Washington State, let alone win, and so the defeat sent many WSU supporters into a spiral of despair.
As usual, Moos’ email inbox absorbed a significant portion of the storm.
“There wasn’t a lot of fan appreciation after that game, I can say,” Moos told the News Tribune earlier this week.
“The jury was out at that time as to how we were going to respond. … I don’t want to say it was a blessing in disguise because we should win games like that, especially at home. But it got our attention. You could tell every game after that, we started to mature.”
Started, and continued: the Cougars won eight of their next 10 games after their embarrassing start, and so they carry an 8-3 record and No. 20 national ranking into Friday’s Apple Cup game against Washington at Husky Stadium.
The Huskies, meanwhile, hold a 5-6 overall record, and must beat their rivals for the sixth time in seven years to assure bowl eligibility — though it appears increasingly likely that a few teams with 5-7 records will receive bowl bids due to a shortage of six-win teams this season.
And while UW was installed in most sports books as a 5 1/2-point favorite — perhaps a reflection of the uncertain status of WSU quarterback Luke Falk, who suffered head injuries in each of the Cougars’ past two games and left the field on a backboard last week — the Cougars enter the Apple Cup as the more relevant program, and they enter it with a winning record for just the third time since 2003.
Moos, who hired coach Mike Leach to resurrect the moribund Cougars following the 2011 season, is beginning to see the dividends of his considerable investment. WSU’s New Mexico Bowl appearance in 2013 was somewhat of a bonus, Moos said, because he didn’t anticipate a season this successful until … well, until this season.
“I honestly can tell you that I didn’t project that we would be in a position like we are right now until Year Four,” Moos said. “We had that little glimmer of excitement two years ago when we went to the New Mexico Bowl, but we still didn’t have the quality and number of athletes, in my opinion, that we needed be competitive in the Pac-12 (Conference). And we’re a lot closer now.”
Leach, who guided WSU to a 12-25 record in his first three seasons, finally sees the kind of focused cohesion for which he strives. And it has showed late in games, too. The Cougars won games against Rutgers and UCLA with touchdowns on their final offensive possession, won at Oregon in double overtime, and were a last-second missed field goal away from upsetting Stanford and taking control of the Pac-12 North division race.
The maturation, Leach said, has its roots in a mental shift (it also didn’t hurt that WSU regained its best receiver, junior Gabe Marks, after a confluence of obstacles forced him to redshirt last season).
“I think we had a lot of people that were used to a losing culture that cared a lot about what was going on off the field and what people thought of them,” Leach said earlier this week by telephone, “and I think as we cut away and focused on ourselves and doing the best we could on the field, I think it just helped us improve. We removed a lot of clutter and were just a lot more clear minded.”
It’s the way the Huskies, hoping to extend this frustrating season, would also like to play on Friday.
“We’ve got to make sure that we show up and play our best game with our best focus and our best energy, and not have left it on the practice field,” UW coach Chris Petersen said. “So I think these guys had a nice balance of focusing in. In a couple of days it’s time to go play, with the most focused we’ve been and as much energy as we’ve had.”