Cougs need to learn how to finish

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
12:00
PM ET
This has to be an awkward and confusing time for Washington State fans.

On one hand: Yay! Postseason.

On the other: Seriously?

It hurts today. Just like it hurt Saturday night. Just like it hurt yesterday. And just a head’s up, it’s going to hurt tomorrow.

[+] EnlargeKivon Cartwright, Tanner Hedstrom, Theron West, Joe Dahl
AP Photo/Matt YorkColorado State's improbable comeback victory over Washington State in the New Mexico Bowl highlighted a harsh truth -- the Cougars haven't developed a killer instinct yet.
When you balance the elation of going to a bowl game for the first time since 2003 with the downright dejection of blowing a 15-point lead in the final nine minutes, it can be jarring.

This column isn’t intended to make you feel better -- because it won’t. I don’t feel better; I’m actually still pretty ticked. Of all the bowl games for the league this postseason, this was the one the Pac-12 blog felt most confident about.

Losses like this don’t go away easily. Ask Nevada or Arizona, a couple of teams who engaged in their own improbable Albuquerque antics last season.

There’s a reason why Washington State was up 35-13 at one point. It’s because it’s the better football team. This is a Cougars squad that pushed Auburn to the brink -- at Auburn. This is the team that kept Marqise Lee to seven catches for 27 yards. The Cougars should have taken Colorado State to the cleaners and kept the change.

But they didn’t. So bully for the Rams. They deserved it. They didn’t give up.

There’s a reason why the Rams don’t have their own entry in the Urban Dictionary. But the Cougars do. And it's been there since 2005.

Coug
To blow a game when victory is almost certain, especially in the 4th quarter. Term made popular by a college football team in the northwest that blows games with consistency.


Harsh, but warranted.

At some point the players and fans will have to shake this one off. Because when the dust settles and you start to look at the season in its entirety, it shouldn’t be just about 10 bad minutes.

For starters, getting to a bowl game for the first time in more than a decade is a significant achievement -- especially in just the second year of a new coach and system. Beating USC in Los Angeles is a big achievement. Winning at Arizona is a big achievement. It’s easy for this loss to put a cloak of disappointment on what was accomplished the previous three months. Don’t let it.

“I think it’s huge to make a bowl the first time in 10 years,” said Washington State coach Mike Leach after the game. “I think that’s gigantic. I think a lot of that happened by continuing to improve. We went through an incredibly tough stretch as a team. We got better and better all year long.”

He’s right. Washington State is no longer a check in the win column. With the Pac-12 as deep as it has been in years, a Mike Leach-coached team is going to be a threat every single week.

It also got to the postseason, which is a big step forward. The next step is learning to win games like this. It’s one thing to be favored and know you are a better team. It’s a whole other thing to go out and execute.

“There was a sense of relaxation in the fourth quarter that we paid the price for,” Leach said.

I believe the expression is killer instinct, and that can only come from experience. The Cougars haven’t had much cause for a killer instinct lately. It’s an acquired taste for chum in the water, and Washington State is yet to develop that. Stanford has it. Arizona State has it. Oregon has it. The top teams in the country have it. My gut tells me that, eventually, WSU will too under Leach.

The Cougars might never ascend into the ranks of a top-five team, but they’ll learn to finish.

“I think that starts with a certain level of belief,” Leach said. “I think we’re a better team than we honestly across the board we believe we are. Confidence breeds success, success breeds confidence. Some of that is offseason and time on the practice field in order to develop those skills and get a visual of what you’re capable of individually and then as you do it together more often and become more familiar with each other you start to see it take shape. We need to continue to push and really develop that.”

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