Washington State's 31-14 win at Oregon State was impressive and significant in many ways, not the least of which was it ending a 16-game Pac-10 losing streak.
But let's face it: Planets often align in strange ways in the college football universe. Just in the past few years we've seen FCS teams win at powers such as Michigan and Virginia Tech. We saw Stanford, as a 41-point underdog, win at USC with its backup quarterback. We saw Alabama get physically manhandled by Utah in the Sugar Bowl.
This year, we've see Kansas lose to South Dakota State in its opener, beat then-No. 15 Georgia Tech in Week 2, then lose to Baylor and Kansas State by a combined count of 114 to 14 on consecutive weekends, then score 35 consecutive fourth-quarter points to beat Colorado 52-45.
So freaky, unpredictable stuff happens all the time.
But nothing about the Cougars win feels "freaky." And this victory -- their first on the road since 2007 -- is about more than a long-awaited payoff for the Cougars. They have repeatedly played well into the second half and even the fourth quarter this season.
To me, the most significant reference point that highlights their improvement is the 42-0 loss at Arizona State on Oct. 30. That's the point in which many, including me, thought the Cougars were waving the white flag over coach Paul Wulff's tenure.
That game seemed to indicate exhaustion and malaise had set in. It seemed to say that Wulff's players had lost their faith and, subsequently, their will. On the Tuesday Pac-10 coaches conference call after that dreadful performance, Wulff said a number of things that could have been used to make a case against him.
Said Wulff, "It felt like we played with a tank that was empty with emotion."
Said Wulff, "We just didn't get a response."
Said Wulff, "That ultimately comes back on me. I've got to get us ready emotionally."
Said Wulff, "I try not to gauge the state of the program on one game."
Said Wulff, "I'm not really worried about retaining for next year. We're in year three of a major rebuilding project. I don't know if I'd state it we have to win these games. Were playing in a lot of ways to our potential and what we are capable of doing. We're close."
All of that could could easily fall into a column about why Wulff shouldn't be back in Year 4. Wulff was being himself -- an honest, stand-up guy -- but it wasn't hard to construe "ultimate defeat" from his words.
But, instead, this is a column about why the only sensible decision is to retain Wulff.
In a nutshell, he got the feckless team that lost 42-zip at Arizona State to become the team that won at Oregon State 31-14 two weeks later. One word: leadership. Wulff got his players, who had fought hard all year -- until the Arizona State game -- to reinvest after they'd hit an emotional nadir. If you've ever been in charge of a group of people, you know how hard that is. Wulff could offer them little incentive; a bowl game wasn't a possibility. His players probably were aware his job status was shaky, so if they quit on him, they'd get a fresh start in 2011 with a new coach.
All Wulff could say was, "We're in this together. Let's show some pride and compete." And guess what happened? The message stuck and then resonated in what was produced in Reser Stadium.
According to the Sagarin Ratings, Washington State has played the second-toughest schedule in the nation, one that has included No. 1 Oregon, No. 6 Stanford, No. 10 Oklahoma State, No. 20 USC (AP) and No. 22 Arizona. Moreover, they've played 11 consecutive weeks without a bye.
That's at tough road, period. But the Cougars have done it playing a bevy of young players. Of the 60 Cougars who played at Oklahoma State in the season-opener, 24 were making their college football debuts. The Cougars have played 10 true freshman this season. Of the 113 players on the Cougar roster, only 17 have been in the program more than three years, or prior to head coach Wulff’s arrival in December of 2007. On defense alone, 14 of the 22 players on the current depth chart are freshmen or sophomores.
Oh, and that defense, which is statistically terrible based on the entire season, held Oregon, Arizona and Stanford below their season averages for both points and yards. It held California to just 20 points. And it completely stuffed Oregon State.
In other words, maybe we should have seen the Corvallis Cougars Crusade coming.
Wulff inherited a disaster -- things were much worse than the average fan realized -- and his first two seasons ended up exactly that way. But the black smoke is clearing, and a program appears to be reemerging.
Every coach in the Pac-10 has remarked that the Cougars are different this year -- faster, more physical and less sloppy. The list of young talent coming back in 2011 is impressive: quarterback Jeff Tuel, wide receiver Marquess Wilson, Safety Deone Bucannon, defensive end Travis Long, defensive tackle Brandon Rankin, linebacker C.J. Mizell, etc.
We're not ready to proclaim a return to the run from 2001-2003 when Washington State finished ranked in the the final top-10 three consecutive seasons. The Cougars in a bowl game in 2011, in fact, probably will be seen as a longshot.
But you saw what just happened, didn't you? We just typed "Cougars" and "bowl game" in the same sentence and you read it without flinching or doubling over in laughter.