As the college football schedule gets ever more complex, with conference championships, playoffs, intermittent bye games and the like, finding a season’s midpoint can be tough.
For Washington State, though, now seems as good a time as any to declare the halfway mark. WSU (4-2, 3-0 Pac-12) has played half of its regular-season games and already had its bye. While WSU could still be playing football in the new year, the first seven weeks held enough drama, growth, story lines and storybook endings for an entire season. Maybe two.
“Every game is big. It’s really tough to win in college football. On any Saturday, anything can happen,” quarterback Luke Falk said. “To win the last three games have been huge and I really don’t believe we’ve played our best game yet.”
The Cougars, winners of four straight for the first time since 2003, have come so very far since they broke camp in Lewiston back in mid-August. In one respect, though, they are right back where they started.
WSU, which began the season with so much hype after last year’s nine wins, finally regained the target on its back. Even the wins are not always satisfying anymore.
“It was a great team win but it’s on to the next one. I think it was too close. I think we could have put more points on them and held them to (fewer) points, especially in the fourth quarter,” linebacker Peyton Pelluer said after Saturday’s win over UCLA.
The Cougars are favored by nearly a touchdown in next weekend’s game at Arizona State. Even though the Cougars have not won in Tempe in 15 years. Even though ASU is 5-2 and has not lost at home since Oregon beat them in triple-overtime on Oct. 29 of last year.
Think about that: WSU is expected to be the first team in 51 weeks to beat the Sun Devils in their place. Expectations have not been this high in Pullman since, well, since before the Cougars dropped their first two games, shaking up their eager fan base.
This is not to say that the four teams the Cougars have vanquished in succession have taken the Cougars lightly. Oregon and UCLA likely had payback on their minds after losing to the Cougars at home last year, and Stanford’s players doubtlessly respected the Cougars after eking out a two-point win in Pullman last year.
But with wins come other distractions, ones that perhaps quieted down after WSU’s suboptimal start to the season. Already, observers around the conference are pointing to the Apple Cup as a game that could have Rose Bowl implications for both teams and the Cougars have five more games to focus on before then.
The Cougars never stopped believing they were one of the conference’s toughest teams. Now they have to win when everybody else knows it, too.
COUGARS OPPONENT THIS WEEK
ARIZONA STATE SUN DEVILS (5-2 overall, 2-2 in Pac-12)
7 P.M. SATURDAY, SUN DEVIL STADIUM, PAC-12 NETWORKS, 710-AM
COACH: Todd Graham (39-21 in 5th year at ASU; 88-50 in 11th year overall)
AGAINST THE COUGARS: Arizona State leads the series 27-14-2.
SCOUTING REPORT: The Sun Devils score a fair amount of points — at 36.3 per game, they rank 32nd nationally in scoring offense — but don’t move the ball all that efficiently, ranking only 95th in yards per play at 5.32. And they scored only 21 and 16 points, respectively, in their two losses, neither of which were close. … Starting quarterback Manny Wilkins sat out ASU’s victory over UCLA, then returned last week and played in the Sun Devils’ 40-16 loss at Colorado. In six games this season, Wilkins has completed 59.8 percent of his passes for 1,382 yards, six touchdowns and five interceptions. He has also rushed 72 times for 223 yards and four touchdowns. … ASU’s running game has been uncharacteristically inefficient, averaging only 3.94 yards per attempt — they’ve allowed 17 sacks, which doesn’t help – though the Sun Devils are tied for 13th nationally with 18 rushing touchdowns. Demario Richard leads the team with 495 yards rushing and two touchdowns. Kalen Ballage, who scored eight touchdowns in ASU’s 68-55 victory over Texas Tech, has 324 yards on 68 carries. … ASU has five players with 150 or more receiving yards, a group led by Tim White’s 44 catches and 525 yards, though he does not have a touchdown. In fact, the Sun Devils have thrown only eight touchdown passes in seven games, and they rank 94th nationally in passing efficiency. … ASU is one of the worst defensive teams in the country, allowing 6.66 yards per play — a figure that ranks 124th nationally out of 128 teams — and 34 points per game, which ranks 106th.
DID YOU KNOW: WSU has lost its past six games in Tempe dating back to 2001.hasn’t won in Tempe since 2001. The Cougars have lost six games at ASU since.
Christian Caple: 253-597-8437, @ChristianCaple