This game will make or break WSU’s season

Team can prove itself with road victory, one columnist argues


KIERA CLUBB | Daily Evergreen file

Sophomore wide receiver Dezmon Patmon races down the field, gaining yards for WSU in Saturday’s game against Stanford.

BRADEN JOHNSON, Evergreen columnist

A slight shrug of the shoulders and an unmistakable eye roll from WSU junior wide receiver Tavares Martin Jr. at Tuesday’s practice encapsulated the program’s mantra heading into a Rocky Mountain showdown.

Martin Jr. was asked about the career accolades of Utah wide receiver Darren Carrington II. Specifically, what he makes of the senior transfer’s stat lines. Carrington leads the Pac-12 in receiving yards per game (92.2) and ranks second in receptions per game (6.4).

“Nah,” Martin Jr. said. “I ain’t worried about no other receiver in the Pac-12 or in this country. I’m only worried about the guys at WSU.”

It was a fitting reaction, and one that had nothing to do with Carrington’s history of off-field issues that led to his dismissal from Oregon in July.

This was all about whether No. 19 WSU is ready to play with the big boys and contend for a Pac-12 North division title, a goal the program has been vocal about since spring ball.

To contextualize, a road victory over the Utes’ defensive front seven, hard-nosed running game and in the raucous and thin-air conditions on Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium means WSU can win the North division outright with a victory over No. 9 University of Washington.

Martin Jr.’s response elicited emotion and a swagger fans have been anticipating for a while. It was biting, and evolved over a 10-week stretch of games that has the Cougars knocking on the doorstep of playing for a title.

“Every game is a playoff game for us,” he said. “One at a time.”

Identical stakes were on the line for WSU at this time last season as was the win-loss record. That team was the victim of its own propensity to listen to outside noise and a novice at playing in primetime, however.

Utah is not a Pac-12 title contender, but is rugged, physical and feeds off its home crowd. It’s about to show us just how far WSU’s program demeanor has grown, or if anything has changed.

Distractions are rampant in this one. All the Pac-12 passing records redshirt senior quarterback Luke Falk has set, come full circle for one last collegiate game in his home state. The Logan-native has more than 100 family members and friends heading south to Salt Lake City on Saturday, a recipe tailor-made for “Kumbaya” to ensue.

Saturday’s ballgame is sandwiched between a pair of matchups against ranked foes, assuming UW does not fall off the face of the earth before the Apple Cup. Utah’s defense possesses similar strengths to that of the Huskies’, but lacks national recognition of the Cougars’ oldest rival.

“This game is the most important one we have,” Leach said.

He downplayed the notion that WSU has an issue with becoming too comfortable playing at Martin Stadium and thus, lacking in focus and execution on the road. Yet turnovers, missed tackles and sluggish starts define the common thread in the Cougars’ back-to-back road losses.

WSU has work left to do to convince a wider audience that it is a national player rather than an occasional flash in the pan and feel good story. Winning games in enemy territory as the betting favorite is a modest attempt to flip the script.

“They like to run the ball,” redshirt freshman linebacker Jahad Woods said of Utah. “Big offensive linemen. They have a good quarterback. I think as long as we do what we have to do, we’ll be fine.”

Make no mistake about it. This is going to be a stiff test offensively and defensively. No road game is easy in the Pac-12, as Leach preaches, but Saturday’s contest feels dicey.

The Cougars’ morale and moxie is going to be on full display come 2:30 p.m. Saturday. Has this program truly turned a corner with last week’s emphatic win over No. 21 Stanford, or will it revert to the aforementioned road woes?

Martin Jr.’s attitude dramatizes more than just a shift in expectations. His rhetoric symbolizes an edginess about the group that was absent down the stretch in 2016.

The Floridian has bought into the spawn of a new identity.

Other players on WSU’s travel roster are about to show us all whether or not his sentiment is an isolated case, or a program-wide renaissance.