Micah Rice: All on display in Emerald City

Commentary: Micah Rice

By Micah Rice, Columbian sports editor

Published:

 

SEATTLE — The rain came down in sheets on Saturday. Yet hues of crimson and purple blanketed this city at the dawn of another Pac-12 football season.

The Washington State Cougars came to CenturyLink Field for their annual Seattle "home" game, which kicked off as the Washington Huskies were putting the finishing touches on a 31-13 win over Arizona at Husky Stadium.

Rivals separated by an entire state found themselves four miles apart. But unlike the line from the old Western, this town was big enough for the both of them.

There was some ribbing: "I hope the rain holds off until 7 just for the Cougs." Those looking for a silver lining in Seattle's merciless traffic saw it in rival fans commiserating: "We don't have that problem in Pullman."

But for a non-partisan observer, Saturday offered a chance to see the state's two preeminent programs at a crucial time. Both UW and WSU appear to be on the rise, and Saturday put in contrast the two different approaches those teams are taking.

Washington, which unveiled polished gold helmets, hopes to soon wear the Pac-12 crown. The Huskies aim to rise in the manner of Oregon, with fabulous facilities, a lightning-fast offense and enough uniform combinations to keep people guessing on gameday.

Now 4-0, the Huskies will get a true gauge of where they stand with Stanford next week followed by the Ducks. Knocking off one would legitimize No. 16-ranked UW as a program to be reckoned with nationally.

UW partially looked the part on Saturday. At times, its defense made Arizona's spread-option offense look as awkward as a cactus in a downpour. An offense that entered the game averaging 629 yards slipped in the soggy conditions, but still racked up 409.

Four miles southwest, the Cougars are in a whole different state in their approach. Pullman is the toughest campus in the Pac-12 to recruit to. Washington State will never stack up blue-chip recruits, so it needs an unconventional offense, blue-collar defense and charismatic coach to achieve its goal of being relevant in the Pac-12 North.

That's what makes coach Mike Leach a perfect fit. He has the Cougars and their fans believing they can succeed on their own terms. That ugly win at USC has done wonders for the swashbuckling swagger of a team whose coach has an affinity for pirates.

Stanford's superior athleticism was evident Saturday in its 55-17 win. The Cardinal gained 311 yards of offense by halftime and entered the break ahead 17-3. But take away a few big Cardinal passing plays and the Cougars did enough to make Stanford sweat before the game got out of hand in the second half.

The expectations Saturday were not so much that the Cougars would beat the No. 5 Cardinal. But the game wasn't predetermined to be a rout, as some WSU games in recent years have been. That was enough of a reason to celebrate for WSU fans, of which there are many west of the Cascades.

And many Cougar fans never turn down a chance to party, even in the rain.

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