‘We’ve got four winnable football games’: Two wins from bowl eligibility, Washington State eyes softer schedule

PULLMAN – Washington State opened Pac-12 play with a monthlong gauntlet, a five-game stretch that included four of the conference’s best teams.

The Cougars absorbed four losses during the most challenging portion of their schedule, dropping games against three opponents ranked in the top 15 – Pac-12 title contenders Oregon, USC and Utah – and falling on the road against an Oregon State team that landed at No . 24 in the latest AP Top 25 poll, released Sunday.

“I still believe in the men in this locker room. I believe in what we’re building,” first-year WSU coach Jake Dickert said Thursday after the Cougars stumbled to their third consecutive defeat, losing 21-17 to No. 14 Utah at Gesa Field. “But right now, the record says we’re a .500 football team.

“We’ve lost against four top-25 teams, and we’re playing just good enough to get beat.”

WSU (4-4, 1-4 Pac-12) played as the underdog in each of its four losses – a 44-41 decision versus Oregon, a 30-14 result at USC, a 24-10 letdown at Oregon State on Oct . 15 and last week’s shortfall against a shorthanded Utes team playing without its star quarterback and top two tailbacks.

“The effort level was a lot better (versus Utah) than it was the last time out,” Dickert said. “Our guys are staying the course. They’re trusting the coaching. But in those tight moments, we just haven’t been able to get over the hump.”

With four games left to play, the Cougars are two wins away from bowl eligibility. A postseason berth is still within reach. The final stretch of WSU’s Pac-12 schedule is much less intimate than the first half.

The Cougars will probably be favored to win two or three of their remaining games.

“We gotta bounce back, and we’ve got four winnable football games,” Dickert said. “They’ll remember November. We’ve got an opportunity to be a really good team and put our stamp on the season.

“This isn’t heads down and moping around, all is lost. This isn’t that. It won’t be that, and it starts with me.”

WSU opened as a 4-point favorite on the road against Stanford (3-5, 1-5). The Cougars will travel to the Bay Area to meet the Cardinal at 12:30 pm on Saturday (Pac-12 Network).

A week later, the Cougars host an up-and-down Arizona State squad that is playing under an interim coach. WSU then travels to the desert to face the Arizona Wildcats, who have struggled defensively but feature a potent offense led by former Cougars quarterback Jayden de Laura.

The Cougars close their season at home looking to retain the Apple Cup against an improved Washington team, which boasts the nation’s most-productive passing offense.

WSU’s best opportunities will come in the next two weeks. The Cardinal rank near the bottom of the Pac-12 in most major statistical categories. The Sun Devils are inconsistent all around, though they have been competitive at times – for instance, they knocked off Washington earlier this month.

But no victories can be guaranteed if the Cougars continue to slump offensively. WSU was held under 20 points in each of its past three games. The Cougars’ offensive line is problematic. Their running back room is depleted due to injuries. Their passing game has been bottled up in recent weeks.

For the most part, WSU’s defense has pulled its weight. The unit leads the conference in points allowed per game (20.8). During this three-game skid, the Cougars defense gave up an average of 25 points per game.

“I’m proud of our defense,” Dickert said. “I thought it was tighter (versus Utah) than it’s been. We’re just missing some things… getting some takeaways and finding ways to flip the field and create momentum.

“(The defense) has just been not quite enough to overcome us not being as efficient as we want to be on offense.”

The Cougars, one of the top turnover-forcing teams in the country last year, have collected only nine takeaways this season – three in the past five games. WSU’s rushing defense and pass-rushing numbers have been largely underwhelming in Pac-12 play. The Cougars allowed 170-plus rushing yards in four of their last five games and managed just one sack in each of their last three contests.