PULLMAN – A national television audience will tune in to Saturday night’s college football game at CenturyLink Field, and the vast majority of viewers expect to witness something even uglier than the controversial end of Monday night’s NFL game between the Seahawks and Packers.
Second-ranked Oregon has been installed as a 281/2-point favorite over Washington State in Seattle. The prolific Ducks offense might go wild against the struggling Cougars defense, but WSU defensive lineman Xavier Cooper isn’t conceding anything.
“I don’t like it when people ask me about an upset, because I think Wazzu, we’re capable of competing with everybody,” said Cooper, a redshirt freshman out of Tacoma’s Wilson High.
“If we just go out there and play Cougar football, we can win the ball game. We can win any game we focus on.”
WSU coaches and players agree that there was not enough focus on Colorado in the second half last Saturday.
An epic fourth-quarter collapse permitted the Buffaloes — arguably one of the worst teams in big-time college football — to rally for a 35-34 win.
“Coach (Mike) Leach told us we respected them in the first half but didn’t respect them in the second half,” Cooper said. “I think that’s where we fell as a team.”
Colorado’s 17-point rally in the fourth quarter spoiled Cooper’s first college start. He recorded season highs of seven tackles, three tackles for loss and his first sack.
“I like the way he’s doing things,” Leach said. “His intensity, burning desire to play. Really plays well as a young player.”
Cooper is playing football for the first time in three years. He grayshirted (delayed full-time enrollment until January) after failing to academically qualify in 2010, then was limited to practicing last year as a part-time qualifier.
Cooper said his grades scared off such schools as Washington, Oregon, California, UCLA and Tennessee.
“I made some mistakes in high school, not doing what I needed to do in class,” Cooper said in his typical, straightforward manner. “Luckily, I got in here, and I’m just so glad Washington State gave me this chance to play football.”
Cooper, who turns 21 on Nov. 30, said it was “kinda tough” – but advantageous – to delay his college debut.
“Grayshirting was a blessing in disguise,” he says, “because I feel like now I’m bigger, stronger and faster.”
The 6-foot-4, 298-pound Cooper generally lines up at end when the Cougars employ their standard 3-4 defense. He often moves inside to tackle when WSU switches to a 4-3 look, and he’s taken some snaps at nose tackle.
Cooper drew raves in the spring and during early preseason practices, then suffered a sprained right ankle that limited him to conditioning drills most of the time until he saw limited duty against Eastern Washington in the second game.
“He can have a really big impact for us,” senior buck linebacker Travis Long said. “He’s coming along.”
“The injury kind of hurt him with his mental progression (knowing plays), but he’s getting better each week,” Long said. “He’ll be a good player.”
Leach echoed Long, saying, “Execution level, I think we’ve got to get that higher, which I think we will because you’ve got a really motivated guy that plays really hard.”
Cooper said classes are “going well” now, and he sounds confident the same will soon be said about the Cougars’ season.
“We’ve got a lot of talent on this team,” he said. “We’ve got unbelievable talent. We can go very far. I think guys got complacent when we were winning by 17 (against Colorado). We’ve got to finish. When we get ’em down, we’ve got to kick ’em. Kick ’em in the mouth.”
Cooper said he expects “about 25” friends and family members to be on hand at CenturyLink Field, where he’s watched the Seahawks play several times.
Cooper dreams of playing in the NFL, but regardless of his football future, he is grateful for the family support he received when his college debut was delayed.
“It was tough, man,” he said. “I just think God. I want to give all the credit in the world to my mom and my dad and my nephew Marcus (Cooper of Tacoma), because without them, I wouldn’t be here. They always told me to just keep my head up: ‘One day, you’re going to be on that field, and you’re going to get everything you deserve. You’ve just got to keep working harder than the next man.’
“All I want to do is just help Washington State win.”