PULLMAN — During the second quarter against Stanford last week, it was apparent that Washington State’s hard-pressed defense hadn’t solved all its third-down problems.
Two days later, it got some kudos from its often critical head coach anyway.
“I think they played better ... more motivated,” Mike Leach said Monday at his weekly news conference, alluding to a 49-22 win that bolstered the Cougars’ bowl prospects.
“I think we isolated reps in guys that were more committed to playing. And I think they played together better too, because they did a better job of doing what they were coached to do.”
The winner of the Cougars’ home game against Oregon State on Saturday will become bowl-eligible, and the loser will need to defeat its arch-rival in a regular-season finale the following week to achieve the same goal.
Kickoff is 6 p.m. at Martin Stadium. The Cougars (5-5, 2-5) are favored by 11½ points over the Beavers (5-5, 4-3) despite trailing them by two games in the Pac-12 North standings.
Anthony Gordon and the Cougar offense played the starring role in the win against Stanford, and Gordon on Monday was named Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week for his 520-yard passing performance. It was the third time this year he’s won that award.
But the game also saw an improved showing from the Cougar defense, whose latest wave of turbulence last week involved the dismissal of two defensive backs and the departure of a transfer-minded linebacker.
“I thought we did a good job of line movement ... shifting from our front, and occasional pressure — we were kind of hoping to pressure more,” Leach said. “They (the Cardinal) threw a bunch of screens at us, more screens than we expected. I think we did a good job of reeling in the screens, and of course we struggled with some of the downfield plays.”
The struggles were especially evident in the second quarter, when Stanford pulled off a 43-yard gain on third-and-9 and a 23-yarder on third-and-18, both on a 99-yard drive capped by a 23-yard pass play.
But the Cougars held Stanford to eight second-half points while erupting for 27 of their own.
It helped being at home for the first time in four weeks. The Cougars are 4-1 at Martin Stadium and 1-4 elsewhere, including 0-4 in conference road games.
“We play better at home,” Leach said. “I think that’s focus. This team from the beginning, we’ve had issues with consistent focus, and some of those problems we’ve eradicated. I do think the biggest thing of playing on the road is just focus. You just do the same thing over and over and over. Look at it the same way, just a different setting.”
The Oregon State game will be the Cougars’ final home contest, meaning Leach is expressing his usual ambivalance about Senior Night ceremonies.
“With regard to going out there and getting your carnation or whatever you get, that’s really kind of a deal for the fans to send off the seniors,” he said. “I think it’s good, I think it’s important, I think our guys are excited about it.
“But to be perfectly honest, I don’t think it’s indulged particularly long. I think they’re locked into the game. Plus they’re going to have another game (the following week). We’re going to do plenty of things together. So within the team, it’s not like after Senior Day you see somebody in the hall and say, ‘Hey, I thought you were gone.’ No, we’re going to see each other plenty.
“So you guys have your fun with Senior Day,” he said, “and we’ll try to get a first down.”
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