When the Cougars skipped, floated and hopped joyously across the Clink rug into their halftime locker room Saturday night, I think I understood better Washington State coach Mike Leach's laments that his team doesn't quite get this winning thing.
The Cougs were behind 23-19, not ahead by 23-19, or ahead by anything. True, no one expected WSU to be within an hour's F-15 plane ride of the second-ranked Oregon Ducks, but being four down at half is like having the winning ticket at the church raffle -- please enjoy that set of coasters from The World's Largest Open Pit Mine in Butte.
The three-time Pac-12 champion Ducks are resourceful, relentless and remorseless. Nothing about the first half altered what was merely a matter of time. The final score of 51-26 was pretty much what the bookies had in mind. In fact, it was what Oregon coach Chip Kelly had in mind.
"I think we understood that they probably gave us their best shot," he said dryly of the Cougs' first half. "We focused on finishing the game."
There you have it -- the difference between Oregon and Washington State (and a lot of other teams) is the knowing the front end of the fight from the back end. The Ducks know they're Chuck Norris, and that bad guys will break a chair over his head once in a while, but they will still end up through the fourth-floor window and atop a car roof.
The fact that the Ducks weren't quite as efficient as they were a year ago encouraged the Cougars a bit, and probably set a few Dawg tails wagging in Montlake in anticipation of Washington's game Saturday in Eugene. But the University of Nike is a withering football machine that requires opponents to be errorless and fearless to stay even. The Cougars didn't get it Saturday in Seattle, and the Huskies won't get it at Autzen Stadium.
Leach knew at halftime his guys didn't get it.
"We (coaches) told them, 'We’re too excited,'" Leach said. " This surprise that we made plays . . . we shouldn’t be surprised we made plays, and that good things happen to us."
Leach shifted the cinematic analogy to the movie "Patton," when the general is asked how his men will do in the pending battle.
"They'll be fine," Leached recalled Patton saying. Asked how he knew, Patton said, "Because they're trained to be."
Leach said he said the Cougars are being trained, "but we have to get to the mindset where good plays are expected because we do it all week long."
The Ducks have been operating that way for years now. Based on the evidence Saturday, the message is starting to seep in with the Cougars. As harshly as he has criticized his players in the early season, Leach said the game "was the most complete one we've played.
"Even though the results aren't what I’d like, there’s a lot of positives as far as personal effort. Best work we’ve done."
WSU can be proud of the fact that they put up 410 yards in the air on 64 pass attempts with only one interception, albeit an egregious one --a pick-six of quarterback Connor Halliday for 40 yards by Ducks cornerback Avery Patterson with 7:20 left in the third quarter. That put up UO 37-19, which just a minute earlier had been 30-19 after the Ducks chugged through 18 plays and 76 yards.
The 14-point burst smashed the Cougars -- the Ducks would run off 28 unanswered before the Cougars beat the spread with a brilliant bullet of a 25-yard pass from backup QB Jeff Tuel to Marquess Wilson in double coverage -- and underscored the enormous talent disparity. Oregon has superior athletes and the Cougs have guys, mostly.
One of the guys who is becoming a genuine toughie is Halliday, who absorbed seven sacks and numerous other hits before finally being pulled with 4 1/2 minutes left. As he took his poundings, Halliday was bedeviled by drops from his receivers and whiffs by his blockers, which can't be tolerated because Oregon's overwhelming speed makes every offensive mistake expensive.
That was painfully evident in the last WSU possession of the first half. Halliday led them from their own 10-yard line to a first down at the Oregon 17. In the final minute, the Cougs had a shot at going into halftime with the lead.
Instead, three consecutive sacks of Halliday cost WSU 28 yards and forced a punt on fourth-and-Saskatchewan. The quarterback said the right thing -- the sacks were on him -- but as always, it was a team deal when advantage goes untaken.
“I have to be able to go through my reads when I feel pressure," he said, self-scolding. "For the most part, in the open field they (rushed) three or four. When we got inside the 30, they brought a lot. I missed a couple of hot routes and a couple of reads.”
That's what sophomore QBs do. He also knew the size of the opportunity blown, and was dismayed as Leach by the celebratory mood in the intermission cookies-and-milk break.
"Guys were pretty riled up," he said. "We have to learn to stay within ourselves or we'll never be successful."
After a four-year record of 9-40 under former coach Paul Wulff, the learning curve is steep in the Palouse. But the 60,929 who showed up to the big city saw a team learn another lesson, as they did with the colossal collapse at home a week earlier against Colorado -- never assume anything.
That, as Patton said, takes training. A lot of training.