The Washington State Cougars obviously didn’t play well this past Friday against the Washington Huskies in the Apple Cup.
A team which put together an eight-game winning streak and fought back from double-digit second-half deficits on the road at Arizona State and Oregon State wasn’t able to run the full race. The Cougars were decisively outplayed in the final six quarters of their regular season, getting outscored 24-7 in the second half by Colorado and 45-17 over four quarters of Apple Cup misery.
(One could be more precise and identify a three-quarter stretch, the third and fourth in Boulder plus the first stanza in Pullman last Friday, as the period which dashed Wazzu’s Pac-12 North title hopes. The Cougars were outscored 52-10 in those three decisive quarters. The final three quarters of the Apple Cup were almost even: Washington 17, Wazzu 14.)
Losing at Colorado didn’t feel like much of a diminishment of Washington State’s resume. (Moreover, it still isn’t and won’t ever be.) The Buffaloes won the Pac-12 South, but the contextual detail of that contest which minimizes its centrality is that once Wazzu acquired a 7-0 record in the Pac-12 this season, it was public knowledge that the Apple Cup was going to decide the Pac-12 North.
It didn’t matter — not for purposes of the Pac-12 North crown — if Washington State won or lost in Boulder. WSU-Colorado mattered for the Cougars’ bowl positioning and the overall quality of their resume, but it was not a decisive moment in their season. Whether Wazzu was 7-1 or 8-0 heading into the Apple Cup, 7-1 Washington would be able to claim the division and head to Santa Clara this Friday.
The loss to Colorado is a mere footnote. What everyone will remember is that in one of the very few winner-take-all games in the 109-game history of the Apple Cup, Washington State not only got blown out at home, but face-planted in a 28-3 first-quarter disaster. It’s easy, based on that one quarter alone, to take a dim view of the Cougars.
Yes, they played poorly. Still, their season was bigger and better than that low point. In truth, WSU’s worst moment in 2016 — as was the case in 2015 — has to be its home-field setback against an FCS opponent.
What happened at the end of this campaign should not be held against Mike Leach’s team. Washington State should be viewed much more favorably than that first quarter last Friday, or the last six quarters it played.
For context, consider one team in Washington State’s conference and one team beyond the Pac-12 as examples which deserve more criticism than the Cougars.
FanRag Sports colleague David Wunderlich examined Texas A&M’s November struggles under Kevin Sumlin. While Sumlin isn’t entirely to blame for A&M’s problems, it remains that the Aggies have a chronic November problem, not merely an occasional one. Washington State doesn’t carry that burden.
The connection between Wazzu in 2016 and A&M during the Sumlin era is simply this: a backloaded schedule will distort impressions of a season. While A&M should win more November games than it does, it remains that November is regularly a backloaded month for the Aggies. Their shame and embarrassment don’t flow from losing to LSU in microcosm, but from the steady and complete nature of their November swoons every year. (This year, losing to the Mississippi schools was A&M’s flaw, a pair of stumbles worse than anything Washington State did this November.)
Nevertheless, the point remains — albeit in an unexpected way: Washington State had a backloaded schedule this season.
Back in September, no one expected the Colorado-Washington home stretch to become as decisive and substantial as it was for the Cougars, but that’s exactly how the autumn unfolded. USC is the most talented and athletically imposing team in the Pac-12, also the team in the league no one (including Washington) would want to play right now. However, over the course of nine league games and the season as a whole, Washington and Colorado were — are — the two best squads in the West. Wazzu happened to play them at the end of the schedule, and both the Buffaloes and Huskies brought their A-games against the Cougs. So it goes.
The team within Washington State’s conference with a “November Problem” akin to Texas A&M is Utah.
Remember this detail which was dug up from the archives after the Utes’ appalling loss (at home) to Oregon? Remember: The Ducks subsequently lost to Oregon State and ended their season at 4-8.
Utah has a lot more to answer for than Washington State. The Utes frankly should have been able to take advantage of USC’s prolonged struggles and UCLA’s continued underachieving over the past few years. The Arizona schools have enjoyed their moments, but they haven’t been nearly as consistent as Utah over a longer period of time.
Here’s one way to view Washington State — and its 2016 season — in a much fuller context: Washington State ended the season as the fourth-best team in the Pac-12. Though not objective fact, few would (or could) disagree with that statement. (Washington, Colorado and USC get the top three spots in some order. The verdict here is that the UW-CU winners get the first two positions, USC the third.)
Which Pac-12 team would deserve to be rated fourth, above the Cougars?
Utah lost that game to Oregon and also dropped a decision at another sub-.500 team, Cal. Stanford finished 9-3, but Wazzu dismantled the Cardinal in a blowout on The Farm in Palo Alto.
Think about that: Washington State, No. 4 in the Pac-12.
With two L.A. schools, Oregon, Stanford, Washington, and the two Arizona schools (at least Arizona State in the Phoenix metropolitan area), Wazzu shouldn’t be expected to finish in the top half of the league most seasons — at least not if the other schools just referenced live up to their own potentials and resources.
The loss to Eastern Washington (that pesky FCS problem!) is a big blot on Wazzu’s resume, but other than that, an 8-3 record against a nine-game Pac-12 slate, Boise State, and bowl-bound Idaho is pretty danged good.
Washington State’s main flaw is not worthy of any criticism at all: The Cougars simply aren’t as good as Colorado or Washington.