It's showtime in the Palouse. The curtains are up, and it's time for the world and Fox Sports executives -- whose network has failed to provide a live telecast of the last three WSU conference games while the Cougars were taking their spot as the leader of the Pac-10 -- to see what they've been missing.
After whisking through the first two-thirds of their schedule with a perfect 7-0 mark [4-0 in the Pac-10], the Washington State Cougars are on the verge of literally, with nary a grain of hyperbole, shocking the world. If they can win against both Oregon and UCLA in the next two weeks -- both games at home -- the Cougs will have put themselves into the running for the Rose Bowl and the national championship.
Yes. You read those words correctly and in their proper order. The national championship. The Washington State Cougars. In football. At that point, you would do well to consider the world shocked.
Nobody, not even the "Big Cat" himself, the 13-year WSU head coach and dean of Pac-10 coaches, Mike Price, knows exactly why the Cougars can do this one year but not every year.
"If I knew that, I'd bottle it," says Price, who has taken the Cougs from what some so-called media pundits thought would be their place in the depths of the Pac-10, to within a few steps of collegiate football's pinnacle.
As David Byrne might say, "Well, how did they get here?"
There was no beautiful house or large automobile. Instead, it all began over the summer with nobody but the Cougar team and coaching staff believing what could be accomplished this year. Now they're the 14th ranked team in the nation.
Star quarterback Jason Gesser stayed over the summer to work on timing with his top receivers -- Nakoa McElrath and Mike Bush. Bush, an escapee from the men's hoop team, had no college football experience but brought his wiry 6-foot-6 frame. More important, as the hoop team's leading scorer, he brought his unquestionable work ethic.
"He's very coachable, and he's done everything we've asked him to do," says Price, who didn't ask him to be the Pac-10's second-leading pass receiver (behind McElrath). But that's what he has done anyway.
The offensive line, last year a weakness due to youthful inexperience, has begun to mature physically, mentally and emotionally -- and with only one senior starter on this year's squad, their best years appear to be ahead of them. The defensive line, similarly a weakness last year, inconsistent and ineffective in either putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks or stopping the run -- has done both this year.
"They've played excellent on both sides of the ball this year so far," confirms Price. "They're both right on target with their progression. Our line play both ways has been great. We're very pleased with how they've responded."
While the injection of Mike Bush on the offensive side of the ball was an unexpected bonus, the defensive side of the ball got help from an old friend, linebacker Raonall Smith. One of the Cougs' prize recruits, Smith was considered to be an All-Pac-10 talent in the making. He displayed that potential when, as a true freshman, he had the gall to pick off a Ryan Leaf pass during a spring scrimmage of what would turn out to be the Cougs' Rose Bowl year. Smith was redshirted that year and then spent much of his redshirt freshman and sophomore seasons with injuries. When he had a relatively injury-free season last year as a junior, he won All-Pac-10 honorable mention. This year, his emergence as a solid player along with his well-seasoned mates, James Price, Billy Newman and Lamont Thompson gives the Cougs the potential for having four Pac-10 first-teamers on the defensive side of the ball.
But perhaps the biggest reason the Cougars have that
glowing look of success is their depth. Yes, once again, you
read the words correctly. In the past, the Washington State football program was not one that could "reload" as they say in the athletic vernacular. Most often, the Cougars would suffer an injury to a key player and the immediate effect would be seen in the win-loss column. Price and his coaching staff changed their approach to awarding playing time this year, partially to keep from being overly reliant on one particular player and partially because they had an abundance of similarly skilled players who would be difficult to keep off the field for large periods of time. The result is that, in games so far this season, Price has rotated more than 60 players on both sides of the ball -- keeping them fresh and giving them valuable game experience. The most notable effect of this strategy has been the team's attitude. Everybody can't be a starter, but almost everyone can play.
"The thing I've probably noticed most this year as opposed from other years is the resiliency of the reserves, the way they've stepped it up when they get their chance to play in the rotation and as players get injured," says Price. "That's always been something we've said we'd like to do but hasn't always been something we've seen on the field. This year, the players have really made efforts and worked very hard to stay focused on what we'd like them to do."
Now, as the season winds down, the planets seem to be coming into alignment. Last summer, when people looked at the schedule, who would've thought that the Cougs could play major spoilers with two of the Pac-10's most highly regarded teams coming through the Palouse -- Oregon and UCLA. Of course, last weekend, Oregon's defense was exposed for what it is -- an overblitzing bunch who can be beaten often -- as Stanford ran all over them. Still, losing makes Oregon even more dangerous, and their high-octane offense will give the Cougs their biggest challenge of the season so far. Look for a shootout.
Down in La-La Land it's a different story, as UCLA has put together a fearsome defense. That November 3 game in Pullman looks to be the Bruins' biggest obstacle to playing for the national championship on their home field come January (the BCS "national championship" game is in Pasadena this year). As an added bonus, if both teams are still undefeated, word on the street is that ESPN's roving College Gameday show will set up camp at Martin Stadium.
We all know the boys in baby blue don't like the cold weather, so a nice Palouse sleetstorm might be just the kind of monkey wrench they were hoping to avoid in this dream season. The game with the Bruins will show how good the Cougs really are on offense, as UCLA has been incredibly stingy on D. And the Cougs should have most of their injured players back for this one (if not sooner), including Marcus Trufant and David Minnich. This one should be a nail-biter.
Of course what Price would like them to do is win every game (including the final road games at Arizona State on Nov. 10 and at Washington on Nov. 17). But this weekend -- and maybe next weekend -- in front of a national television audience, Price will ask himself and his team, "Where will this Cougar highway go?" Perhaps to Pasadena? In the Cougs' last trip to the Rose Bowl, one play loomed large: a goal-line stand that won a key early-season matchup. The opponent? UCLA.
This is where it gets interesting.
The WSU Cougars play the Oregon Ducks at
4 pm, Saturday, Oct. 27, at Martin Stadium in Pullman. Tickets for the Oregon game are
almost gone, and may well be entirely gone by
the time you read this. The game will, however,
be shown live on the West Coast on ABC. At
3:30 pm, Saturday, Nov. 3, the Cougs take on UCLA, also at Martin Stadium. Tickets: $5-$20.