Congratulations to the Washington State Cougars on their upset Saturday of 25th-ranked Southern California. It must feel like a bowl win anytime the Cougs beat USC, especially having not done so since 2002.
It didn’t take long after the final whistle blew for Wazzu fans to start flooding the social media environment with tweets, texts and posts of jubilation. And it didn’t take long for some of them to proclaim the win as one of the signs of the return of football power to the Pacific Northwest – sometimes referred to Washington state – small ‘s.’
The reasoning? Besides Wazzu’s win in Los Angeles, Eastern Washington University has started 2-0 with a season-opening upset of then No. 25 Oregon State and is now ranked No. 2 in the Football Championship Subdivision standings was one reason. Another was the University of Washington’s 38-6 home throttling of then 19th-ranked Boise State.
In the immortal words of college football announcing great Keith Jackson, “Whoa Nellie!”
Or as I wrote on a friend’s Facebook post, “Not so fast my friend.” (Thanks to ESPN Game Day commentator and former University of Cincinnati head coach Lee Corso.)
All three programs posted big wins, and look poised to be off to good starts on successful seasons. But it’s hardly an indication of return to football greatness for all three teams.
I mean, let’s not get the cart before the horse here. Or start counting our chickens befor they hatch. (Hey, this is a sports opinion column: Did you think it would be cliché free? Or lack opinion?)
Let’s start with EWU, because they’re closer to greatness. And yes, I am an Eagle alumnus.
Eastern has reached the FCS playoffs four of the last six years, the quarterfinals three times, the semi-finals twice and a national title in 2010. The last losing season was 2006. They’ve posted wins over FBS schools, with the victory over the Beavers being their first against a Pac-12 program after two near misses – UW and WSU.
Eastern’s 2-0 start includes last Saturday’s 43-14 home win over Division II Western Oregon. The Eagles looked invincible in posting a 29-0 first-quarter lead, but then lost focus, regaining it somewhat in the second half.
Eastern had time to prepare for OSU, and should have scored more against the Wolves. A truer test for the Eagles will be Saturday’s trip to FBS Toledo, who played well in losses to then No. 10 Florida and Missouri.
Next is UW. Smashing the Broncos was impressive, but it was at home, at a newly renovated stadium – both elements providing tons of incentive. Add in the revenge factor – the Dawgs lost the ever-important (Oh, oh, better get) MAACO Bowl to the Broncos 28-26 last year – and there was plenty of fuel to light their fire.
But the Broncos aren’t the Broncos of the past few years, if they ever were a true football power. Yes, they’ve won some big bowls (Fiesta) and beaten nationally ranked teams in season openers – but they play an average schedule in an average conference.
But I digress. Back to Washington, which posted 7-6 records the past three seasons, 1-2 in bowl games. They face a test Saturday in Champaign, Ill. against an Big-10 Illini team, 2-0, with wins over Southern Illinois and Cincinnati.
Washington’s had two weeks to prepare, and I expect good preparation. A truer test of a “return to power” comes Sept. 28 at home against Arizona, and surely Oct. 5 at No. 5 Stanford, followed by hosting No. 2 Oregon.
Finally, the Cougars. To revisit the Paul Wulff years is the sports column equivalent of waterboarding, and that’s not me.
If anything about the USC win, it’s that coach Mike Leach seems to have created a new mentality in Pullman. The players showed grit and determination, and a willingness to match the Trojan defense’s smash-mouth approach with their own.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen a Cougs’ defense play so well. Big-time kudos!
But the offense wasn’t any less inept than the Trojans. The difference was the Cougs only have one quarterback making bonehead plays vs. USC’s two, although it’s hard to fault Connor Halliday for trying, whereas Kody Kessler and Max Wittack didn’t.
Hopefully Halliday learns when he’s sacked, he’s sacked, don’t look for miracles. He’ll have two relatively easy games against the Big Sky’s Southern Utah and independent Idaho to work on that – the easier of the two being the Vandals (sorry Steve).
But a close loss (Auburn) and a close win over a pair of sub-standard rebuilding projects does not make a football powerhouse. A better indication will be how the Cougs do in four straight games with Stanford, California, Oregon State and Oregon.
If Wazzu goes 2-2 in that stretch, and UW and Eastern continue their winning ways, we’ll talk again about Pacific Northwest football power.
John McCallum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.