Ask Mark Jones or Quint Kessenich to assign a pastry to the first half of Washington State’s 2018 football schedule, and any variety of sweet treats may come to mind.
No, the Cougars haven’t experienced murderer’s row the first six games of the season. Yes, a daunting field of land mines awaits them as soon as they finish resting, healing and reflecting from the bye week.
Batting practice is over for WSU. Now it’s time for some live at-bats.
The degree of difficulty will ramp up for the Cougars when the 17th-ranked Oregon Ducks visit on Oct. 20 – the first of a six-game stretch that will test WSU’s mettle and determine if the Cougars head into a third straight Apple Cup with Pac-12 title-game implications, or if this is a team that will settle for six or seven wins and be unable to challenge the hard-hitting heavyweights in the North.
Of course, “settling” for bowl eligibility is a scenario many couldn’t even envision for the Cougars in the months of July and August. And all of the uncertainties that made this team so difficult to predict now seem trivial, with a quarterback who’s leading the country in passing completions (313) and yards (2,422) and a defense that’s vastly outperformed expectations.
Some players have been asked about that – if it feels gratifying to be at five wins through six games, when many predicted the Cougars to be at that same marker by the season’s end. Pac-12 media members collectively picked WSU to finish fifth place in the North and when Ryan Leaf peered into his crystal ball, the legendary Coug QB saw a 4-8 record, though surely Leaf has never been so glad to be so wrong.
“I don’t really listen to the noise,” sophomore wide receiver Tay Martin said Saturday night, on the heels of a 56-37 win over Oregon State. “We talk about it all year: Don’t listen to the noise. We just have faith in our group and know what we want to do.”
Doing it should be exponentially more difficult these last six games, though.
The second half of the schedule is backloaded with schools like Oregon, Stanford, Colorado and Washington, and names like Herbert, Love, Shenault Jr. and Gaskin. The Cougars opened the season 5-1, but the combined record of their first six opponents is just 14-29, and that becomes 9-28 if you remove FCS Eastern Washington.
And games 6-12? Those opponents are a combined 24-9 and five of the six have been ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 at some point this season. UW, Oregon and Colorado came in Sunday morning at No. 7, 17, and 19, respectively.
But navigating the minefield seems much more manageable than it did before Gardner Minshew rose to the top of WSU’s QB depth chart, and then the top of the national passing charts, and before the Cougars’ defense demonstrated it could not only be functional, but at times exceptional, without Alex Grinch calling the plays or Hercules Mata’afa laying the hits.
The Ducks have been as beatable as any opponent for the Cougars these last three years, though admittedly WSU hasn’t seen QB Justin Herbert at his best. Still, Oregon may be coming out of a 10-round slugfest with Washington and the Cougars, who’ll be coming off a bye week, have won their last 10 at Martin Stadium.
Stanford is plenty vulnerable when Bryce Love doesn’t play and the running back’s health has been a season-long question mark. The Cougars will presumably be picked to beat Cal and Arizona at home and an optimist would point to last year’s result against Colorado – a 28-0 win – to suggest why WSU could take down the Buffaloes in Boulder. The Huskies even looked mortal Saturday, beating winless UCLA 31-24.
Things will get tough, but the Cougars – an impressive and unexpected 5-1 – seem to be up for the challenge.
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