SEATTLE (CBS) – Just over a month and a half ago, the Washington State Cougars looked dead in the water.
After a disappointing season opener at home against FCS opponent Eastern Washington, the Cougs dropped a nail bitter against Boise State to start the season 0-2. Both defeats came as a surprise for a team who finished 2015 with a record of 9-4, including a victory over Miami in the Sun Bowl. This was a team who was expected to compete with Oregon, Stanford and Washington to win the Pac-12 North; instead, an 0-2 start casted doubts over the future of 2016.
And no one was more concerned than Mike Leach.
Following the 31-28 loss to Boise State, the AP 2015 Pac-12 Coach of the Year took to the podium, lambasting his team for being soft and claiming they “have the atmosphere of a JC softball game.”
Leach’s comments made the rounds through various sports talk shows and social media — most seemed to indicate Leach was in way over his head. His team had started 0-2 just one other time in his tenure: back in 2014, when they finished 3-9. A repeat of that season, and Mike Leach may have needed to polish up his resume.
Yet since the Boise State contest and Leach’s post-game comments, something seems to have clicked for WSU. The Cougars are 5-0 with a perfect 4-0 record in conference play. Marquee wins include blowouts over Oregon and Stanford, their first sweep of the Pac-12 north juggernauts in 10 years.
This weekend, they’ll look to keep the streak going in the Pac-12 and hold pace with Washington atop the north division. With a Saturday matchup against the 2-5 Oregon State Beavers, 5 straight conference wins looks to be easily attainable.
So why shouldn’t they be ranked?
In every other Power 5 conference, each of the top four teams is ranked in the AP Top 25, except for two. One is Oklahoma State, who sit fourth in the Big 12 at 5-2. The other is Washington State, who have the second-best conference record in the Pac-12.
The Cougars are teetering on the edge of a national ranking for the first time since November 2015, when they were 20th in both the AP and coaches polls. Currently, they are the first team out of the rankings with 84 points. It’ll take 26 points to leap frog No. 25 Virginia Tech into the rankings, and there’s a good reasons to believe that could happen by Sunday’s week 10 release.
Squaring off against OSU comes at an opportune time — Washington State go into Corvallis as a two-touchdown favorite over an Oregon State team that is struggling with consistency. Despite a gutsy shootout win three weeks ago over Cal, the Beavers have lost two straight, both to ranked opponents, including last week’s 41-17 loss to Washington.
WSU is riding one of the most electric passing offenses in the nation, behind junior quarterback Luke Falk. Falk. Falk’s 2,511 passing yards are second-most in the Pac-12, and his 19 touchdowns (to just five interceptions) put him third in the conference.
2016 has also seen the emergence of several WSU receivers, three of which rank in the conference top-15. Senior Gabe Marks (48 catches for 444 yards and 7 touchdowns) has not only been Falk’s favorite receiver, but also seems to always make a catch when the Cougars need one most; Senior River Cracraft has jumped into the top-10 in receiving yards this season, with 470 yards on just 38 receptions.
While the defense still has some holes, and the kicking game needs work, Washington State’s run game has improved immensely since 2015. WSU is averaging almost 33 more rushing yards per game, and have seemed to have learned how to run the clock down while holding the lead.
The early losses can’t be ignored, but they can partially be excused now due to current circumstances. Eastern Washington is 6-1 and ranked 3rd in the nation for FCS teams. Meanwhile, Boise State is undefeated and at 7-0 is ranked 13th in the AP poll.
Technically, there’s no such thing as a quality loss, but dropping games to ranked opponents doesn’t look nearly as bad in the eyes of the voters. A season that began as a disappointment for the Cougars has slowly turned around, and despite a daunting Apple Cup matchup against rival No. 4 Washington on the horizon, Mike Leach appears to have his team zeroed in on taking it week-by-week.
This team doesn’t look like a JC softball team.
They look like a top-25 team.
And with a win at Oregon State this weekend, they will be.