Washington State Football: Lessons from the Cougars' Loss Against Oregon State
For the first three quarters of Saturday night's 52-24 Oregon State victory over Washington State, it looked like the shoot-out it was expected to be. Then, the floor fell out from under Washington State as Oregon State scored two touchdowns in just over a minute.
Prior to that, WSU appeared well on its way to becoming a potential surprise Pac-12 contender only to have Oregon State steal the spotlight. Both teams demonstrated the competitive depth of the Pac-12 and should compete next year with Stanford and Washington. However, they still have a little work ahead of them before they can compete with Pac-12 powerhouse Oregon.
Meanwhile, Oregon State won its fifth straight game since its season-opening loss to FCS Eastern Washington, proving the defeat was more of an aberration than an indication of the season.
Washington State Rises and Falls with Halliday
For the first three quarters, quarterback Connor Halliday played spectacularly as WSU held a 24-17 lead late in the third quarter.
Then Halliday, and by extension WSU, self-destructed, throwing three consecutive drive-killing interceptions in just five attempts. Oregon State capitalized on the turnovers, taking a 45-24 lead with 10 minutes left before head coach Mike Leach yanked Halliday, ending his game.
Backup Austin Apodaca didn't fare much better as another interception and a fumble derailed his two drives, allowing Oregon State to extend its lead to 52-24.
Last week against California, Halliday performed brilliantly, leading WSU to a 44-22 win, but his self-destruction turned a possible Cougars win into a blowout loss.
Simple rule of thumb: When Halliday plays well, WSU can win. If not, the Cougars will lose big time.
In order for WSU to rebound from this crushing defeat, Halliday needs to protect the ball, make smart decisions and play like he did the first three quarters.
Washington State Is on the Way to Pac-12 Relevancy
In four years under previous head coach Paul Wulff, Washington State went 9-40 overall and 4-32 in conference games. Leach then arrived in Pullman, cleaned house and is now one victory shy of matching Wulff's victory total in half as many seasons.
Normally, eight wins in less than two seasons of work isn't impressive. But considering WSU's situation prior to now, it's a sign of major development proving that players are buying into Leach's system.
Even Saturday night's game showed WSU's progress as it stayed competitive for three full quarters before Oregon State ran away with the win. Now, it's just a matter of learning how to finish games.
Judging by the Cougars' progress, Washington State is going to be as powerful as Leach's former team, Texas Tech.
Oregon State Is a Dark Horse Candidate for the Pac-12 Championship
Oregon State is now 3-0 in the Pac-12, tied with Oregon and UCLA for first. Equipped with Sean Mannion's passing attack, Oregon State's offense should keep the Beavers competitive in their games against Stanford, Washington, Southern California, Arizona State and Oregon.
Stanford, Washington and Oregon are currently ranked in the Top 25. Oregon State will be hard-pressed to defeat all three teams, but it's not impossible.
Stanford was just upset by Utah, and Washington now has lost two games to conference opponents. If the Beavers defeat both teams, this year's rendition of the Civil War will decide who goes to the Pac-12 Championship Game, likely against UCLA.
Chances are, whoever wins the North will win the conference, meaning Oregon State is the perfect dark horse in the Pac-12.
Both Teams Can Run When They Need to
The most surprising statistic from Saturday night was that Washington State and Oregon State broke the century mark on the ground. Both teams entered ranking 121st and 122nd in rushing yards per game.
100-plus yards might be a normal achievement for many teams, including the triple-option attack of Air Force, Army and Navy, but this game featured the high-octane attacks of WSU and Oregon State. Mike Leach's Air Raid almost never runs, opting for the short pass instead, but Leach dialed up 21 running plays (excluding a sack).
Neither team had a 100-yard rusher, but they ran effectively when needed as the Beavers finished with three scores while the Cougars finished with two. This game should be a warning sign to the remaining opponents of both teams that if they solely defend the pass, they will get burned on the ground.
Where Do Both Teams Go from Here?
Washington State has No. 2 Oregon, Arizona State, Arizona, Utah and No. 22 Washington remaining on its slate. WSU must defeat at least two more opponents to make it into a bowl game. If Halliday can avoid turning over the ball, WSU should find its way into a bowl game.
As for next week against Oregon, expect the Ducks to blow WSU out of the water.
Oregon State has an even tougher schedule with No. 13 Stanford, Lane Kiffin-less Southern California, Arizona State, Washington and Oregon. Also on Oregon State's radar is California who the Beavers play next week. Oregon State should easily handle the Golden Bears, earning a bowl appearance with the win.
In the next few years, look for both teams making their way into the College Playoff conversation.