Cougars' effort at Stanford revives hopes of winning final four
To achieve its stated preseason goal of reaching a bowl game, WSU must win four straight, starting Saturday against Utah in Salt Lake City.
PULLMAN — It's not exactly a gauntlet. But for the Washington State football team, the final four regular-season games present a daunting task.
The Cougars (2-6, 0-5 Pac-12) have to win all of them to qualify for their first bowl game since 2003, one of WSU's stated goals this season.
Priority No. 1: win at Utah this week. The Utes (3-5) have struggled, but earned their first Pac-12 win Saturday with a convincing 49-27 pounding of California. Utah opened as a 12-point favorite against the Cougars, which isn't a surprise. WSU hasn't been favored in a game since its Sept. 22 loss to Colorado.
If the Cougars manage to pull an upset on Saturday in Salt Lake City, they would still need consecutive wins over teams with a combined record of 15-9 — UCLA (6-2) at home, at Arizona State (5-3) and Washington (4-4) at home.
WSU is likely to be a considerable underdog in each of those games, so a run-the-table scenario is a longshot for a team that hasn't won since Sept. 14 at UNLV.
But the Cougars might have renewed hope after putting a scare into Stanford on Saturday. They lost 24-17 despite driving inside the Cardinal's 10-yard line in the final seconds.
"We were feeding off each other and that's something this team has been missing, is playing as a team," quarterback Jeff Tuel said. "(It was) one of the first times all season it felt like we really played as a unit."
WSU's defensive effort, especially, suggests that the Cougars might be close to turning a corner. They have allowed just 43 total points in their last two road games, against Stanford and then-No. 14 Oregon State. Those performances bode well as WSU prepares to face an inconsistent Utah offense.
"As far as the effort, it was really a good effort game," coach Mike Leach said. "So I'm really proud of our kids for a great effort.
"We've got to keep improving, keep getting better. I thought we played really hard. I thought we played well. We've just got to be a tougher, more mature team."
WSU might be short-handed at receiver this week. Starter Gabe Marks left Saturday's game in the first half and returned to the sideline with his right arm in a sling. The severity of his injury is unknown because Leach doesn't comment on injuries.
Also, there is no given timetable for the return of receiver Isiah Myers, who missed practices last week and didn't travel to Stanford. The team is not saying whether he is injured.
The Cougars moved the ball decently without them against Stanford. Tuel said increased familiarity in Leach's system is one of the reasons why.
"I understand what he's looking for and asking for, and what makes this offense tick," Tuel said.
"It's starting to come together in that aspect, and (I'm) really just getting the ball to a bunch of receivers around the field instead of keying on just one guy."