Cougs look to erase ‘big game’ stigma

Trojans have faced tougher opponents this season compared to WSU, Cougars must play their best


JESSICA HARJA | Daily Evergreen File

Junior wide receiver Tavares Martin Jr., stiff arms a Nevada defender during the game on Saturday.

TYLER SHUEY, Evergreen columnist

In terms of ranking, the matchup this weekend is as good as it gets. The stakes are immense, as the Cougars can potentially catapult themselves into the top-10 of the Associated Press rankings with a victory over the No. 5 team in the country.

It is easy for any passionate Coug fan to let their mind wander to the best of outcomes; I have done that myself plenty of times already this week. With that being said, I always try to look at matchups realistically, and I don’t see many areas where WSU is legitimately better than Southern California is.

Yes, USC has struggled this year in some games, but look at the competition the team played compared to who WSU has played. Three of USC’s four wins this season have been against Power 5 teams, compared to the one the Cougs have played, such as Oregon State. WSU Head Coach Mike Leach predictably downplayed the difference in the team’s schedules so far.

“I’ve actually tried to think about that both directions and in a variety of ways over the years,” Leach said. “Then about 10 years ago I didn’t get anywhere so I stopped doing that.”

The Trojans’ opponents this year have been better than those the Cougs have played. The fact that they just beat a solid Cal team last weekend on the road could make it easier for them to adjust to another hostile Pac-12 environment. On the flip side, our tune-up game was against the 0-4 Nevada Wolf Pack. We are in for a drastic shift of talent for this one.

This doesn’t mean we won’t win; the most talented team doesn’t always win. My point is, the majority of the time, a team wins based on the position matchups they win. In terms of recruiting, WSU can’t compete with the glory of USC football and a location that is ideal for many student athletes.

One area of concern for WSU is how they match up with USC’s interior on both sides of the ball. The trenches are usually where games are won and lost.
“They got some big athletic guys on the interior but we got some guys who can fight,” redshirt senior offensive lineman Cole Madison said. “B.J. [Salmonson] might be undersized, but I wouldn’t want to cross that guy outside of football.”

For as much as the football program has been revised by Leach over the years, I feel as if “the big game” has eluded the team the past few years. Yes, there were some thrilling wins against UCLA and Oregon two years ago, but it always seems the Cougs come up short in pivotal games. Maybe that’s just my pessimistic attitude and my eye for perfection.

Just look at how last season ended. WSU had a long winning streak in the middle of the year after a horrendous start, but lost pivotal games to end the season against Colorado and Washington when the Pac-12 North crown was on the line. We then saw the offense absolutely fold in a blunder of a bowl game down in San Diego, a game in which I traveled to.

It’s time for redshirt senior quarterback Luke Falk and Leach to build upon all those big-game experiences with one win against the mighty Trojans. There’s no reason it shouldn’t happen; we have the experience and pieces in place to do it.

Preparation has been compounded this week, naturally for a Friday night game. It’s ironic that WSU’s one short week of the year comes against a team of the highest caliber.

“[Inside receivers Coach Dave] Nichol was saying short weeks are the best weeks because the game comes faster,” redshirt senior running back Jamal Morrow said. “Instead of sitting there Friday night, you’re not watching the game, you’re actually playing in it.”

With a win, WSU would be the second-highest ranked team in the Pac-12, behind UW, if the Huskies don’t slip up against lowly Oregon State.
“We’ve been playing pretty good ball on the offensive side and the defense has been playing lights out the whole season,” Morrow said. “I feel like both sides are clicking and we’re just ready to go out there and do our thing.”

As we inch closer to kickoff, the hype is intensifying. I have been dreaming of the day the Cougs crack the top-10 and become a team talked about on a national scale. Sixty minutes of top-tier play, focus and physicality is what’s going to give WSU a chance. Maybe that won’t even be enough to top the highest-ranked team in the Pac-12.