Micah Rice: WSU on right track despite Apple Cup loss

Commentary: Of the Pac-12's four NW teams, only WSU met its preseason goals

By Micah Rice, Columbian sports editor

Published:

 

The record will show Washington hoisted the Apple Cup in Husky Stadium's west end zone Friday.

But when you look at the season as a whole, Washington State emerges with a crimson shine.

Of the Pac-12's four Northwest teams, only WSU met its preseason goals. The Cougars are competitive, relevant and bowl eligible for the first time in a decade.

Washington hoped to sprint among the Pac-12's elite. Instead, the Huskies are running in place, stuck in the middle of the standings with no victories over ranked Pac-12 opponents.

Oregon won 10 games, but a late-season swoon is disappointing for a team that had BCS aspirations.

At 6-1, Oregon State's season was filled with hope, but five straight losses have taken the luster off the season whether OSU goes to a bowl game or not.

WSU's season looked dead on Halloween. A 55-21 home loss to Arizona State was the fourth loss in five games, enough to bury most teams. But the Cougars clawed up through the dirt, winning at Arizona and at home against Utah.

That rebound shows the Cougars have bought into coach Mike Leach. His oddball nature might be an acquired taste, but people on the Palouse are eating it up like apple pie.

"We definitely took a step forward," quarterback Connor Halliday said after Friday's game. "The biggest thing would be our mentality. I know everybody in that locker room is hurting right now, just as much as I am. I don't know if that would have been the case last year or two years ago. The culture has changed, and Coach Leach knows what he's doing."

It's tough to recruit to Pullman, where blue-chip players are as rare as a royal flush. The Cougars must win with a system where the sum of the parts is greater than the individuals.

That's why Leach's air raid offense has a chance to make WSU dangerous, much like how Texas Tech became a top-20 team with quarterbacks whose stats jumped off the page. Friday, Halliday set WSU single-season records for passing yards, completions and attempts.

"Every time you play or practice you have an opportunity to improve," Leach said. "That's what I think we've done a good job of the last three weeks, including this one."

Cougar fans are no strangers to losing, especially in recent years. But after Friday's defeat, there's a hint of optimism that only comes from knowing the program is on the right track.

"To lose to (UW) really hurts," senior cornerback Nolan Washington said. "But we'll bounce back, and we'll prepare for whatever bowl game we have."

That's something the Cougars haven't been able to say for a long time.

Micah Rice is The Columbian's sports editor. Reach him at 360-735-4548, micah.ricecolumbian.com or on Twitter col_mrice.