The Daily Evergreen

Cougar football passes its first road test

After taking down Oregon, WSU proved it could win games outside Pullman

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Oregon Ducks sophomore inside linebacker Troy Dye makes a grab for redshirt senior quarterback Luke Falk during Saturday's game.

Oregon Ducks sophomore inside linebacker Troy Dye makes a grab for redshirt senior quarterback Luke Falk during Saturday's game.

ADAM EBERHARDT | The Daily Emerald

ADAM EBERHARDT | The Daily Emerald

Oregon Ducks sophomore inside linebacker Troy Dye makes a grab for redshirt senior quarterback Luke Falk during Saturday's game.

SAM HEIKELL, Evergreen sports columnist

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With an unusual schedule this year, WSU football held its first five games at home and was left with five of the next seven games on the road. Even though the Cougs have exceeded expectations so far, one question remains – will they be capable of continuing their success away from home?

Despite the fact that the Cougars were ranked No. 11 going into the game against Oregon, they were not considered a favorite to beat the unranked team that was playing with its third-string quarterback and missing other important offensive pieces. After all the team’s success, there were still doubts as to how they would perform on the road.

WSU football (6-0, 3-0) answered that question Saturday by taking down Oregon (4-2, 1-2), winning its first road test of the year and propelling the team into the top-10 of Associated Press’ rankings.

Giving up 10 points in the first quarter, it looked like it was going to be a long day for the Cougars’ defense, but they focused in, not allowing any more points for the rest of the game, forcing three turnovers along the way.

“Honestly, for the past two times I played at Oregon, their crowd and stadium seems to pump us up more than it seems to pump them up,” senior rush linebacker Dylan Hanser said. “It’s just nice to go out there and be able to shut down such talked-about offense.”

The offense showed no signs of weakness throughout the game and was not fazed by the Oregon crowd. The Cougs started scoring early, when redshirt senior running back Jamal Morrow took a first-play dump-off pass 41 yards for a touchdown.

Even after a solid conference win on the road, do they have what it takes to stay in the top-10 and become a part of the playoff conversation?

The answer is yes.

As an experienced group, the Cougar offense has been getting it done week in and week out, scoring nearly 40 points per game. Redshirt senior offensive lineman and 2016 first team All-American Cody O’Connell has played a key role in an offensive line that has been improving.

He’s been a big reason the Cougars have scored at least 30 points per game in six straight contests, for the first time in over a decade.

“There’s guys that have been here for a while; they’ve played a lot of football and they’re bought into the system,” redshirt senior quarterback Luke Falk said. “We’ve got a lot of guys at each position that know how to get it done, and a lot of seniors and fifth-years too.”

Falk completed 24 passes on 42 attempts, tallying 282 yards and three touchdowns against the Ducks, and passing Oregon’s Marcus Mariota for the number-two spot on the Pac-12 all-time touchdowns record list.

Falk has been the team’s anchor this season and is currently third in the nation for passing yards with 2,000.

His veteran leadership and knowledge of Head Coach Mike Leach’s offense has been a big part of where the team is today and why Falk is in the Heisman conversation.

Most surprisingly, the defense has made the greatest impact on the team’s success so far this season. Redshirt junior defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa has dominated, proving a threat to opposing offenses’ passing and rushing attacks. He leads the Pac-12 in sacks with 4.5.

WSU’s slightly undersized defense is characterized by speed — a quality that WSU Defensive Coordinator Alex Grinch values highly — along with a ball-hawking style of play that forces turnovers.

Grinch has led a defense that currently ranks 14th in the country in passing yards allowed and 19th in points allowed per game.

And yes, the Cougs have a strong enough schedule to be in the playoff conversation.

Their toughest remaining stretch of games will be the last three of the regular season, as they will take on No. 23 Stanford at home, travel to play a solid Utah team and then face No. 5 University of Washington in the Apple Cup.

The Cougars first need to prepare for another road game this week against University of California and avoid distractions.

“The coaching staff puts emphasis on not worrying about the outside noise,” redshirt freshman linebacker Jahad Woods said. “We don’t worry about stats, rankings, all that stuff.  We just worry about us — how we play, how we practice, how we perform.”

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Cougar football passes its first road test