- With a season-shifting win, Washington State has positioned itself well to profit from the next wave of weirdness out west.
After plenty of hints in the first half of the season, it is now safe to say the Pac-12 is in a state of disarray.
Washington State knocked off the conference’s last undefeated team in league play, beating Oregon 34–20 on Saturday night in Pullman, Wash., after ESPN’s College GameDay had properly riled up the Cougars’ fan base with the pregame show’s first trip to the campus that morning. Fresh off an upset of Washington, Oregon entered this game harboring an outside shot of making the College Football Playoff if it ran the table and finished the season with a lone loss to Stanford. Now, if the conference has any shot of making the playoff, it’s up to the only remaining one-loss team, and it’s the one coached by Mike Leach.
The Cougars’ night started off inauspiciously, with an interception by quarterback Gardner Minshew on the opening possession, just Minshew’s fifth of the season. The Ducks didn’t take advantage, punting on the ensuing possession. From there the East Carolina graduate transfer QB and Washington State got into a rhythm, scoring touchdowns on the next four drives of the first half and sprinting out to a 27–0 lead. Oregon, usually the one dictating the pace of any game, simply couldn’t keep up while Minshew did whatever he wanted.
By halftime, Washington State’s stats told the story. The Cougars led the Ducks convincingly in total yards (295 to 39), first downs (19 to three), third down conversions (Washington State was a near-perfect 8-for-9 while Oregon was 0-for-4), and time of possession (the Cougars had the ball for almost 23 minutes). Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert was 4-of-11 for 36 yards, while Minshew was 31-of-36 for 231 yards, with three touchdowns and the one interception. Nine different Washington State receivers caught passes, which shouldn’t be surprising considering six have more than 200 yards receiving through seven games of the season.
Oregon made its push in the second half, scoring 20 unanswered points to get in striking distance with 5:27 remaining. Washington State pulled together just in time and widened its lead back to double digits with an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that took up 2:58 of clock.
After the game, Leach told the FOX broadcast that in order for his team to be successful the rest of the season, they’ll need to play a full game the way they played in the first half. The Cougars allowed Herbert to look more like himself in the second half, and the Ducks QB finishing the game 25-of-44 for 270 yards and a touchdown. Minshew, who averages more than 400 yards passing per game, went 8 of 15 for 92 yards with one touchdown and an interception after the break.
What does this mean now for the Pac 12 and its race for a spot in the playoff? The odds are still not particularly in the conference’s favor now that the Cougars are the league’s only team with one loss (to USC last month). And there’s a tough road ahead with a trip to Stanford next week, the regular season finale against rival Washington, which has won the last five Apple Cups, and matchups against Cal, Colorado and Arizona in between. The Cougars sit atop on the North Division now, but that could change quickly.
If Washington State does win out, there’s still no guarantee it gets into the four-team field. The Cougars played Wyoming, San Jose State and Eastern Washington to start the season, which will not sit favorably with a selection committee that places value in strength of schedule. And who knows how many of their conference wins will look good if the Pac-12 continues its steady stream of upsets and turnover at the top.
However, this is the time of year when chaos takes over everywhere, not just on the West Coast. Minutes after Washington State upset Oregon, Purdue pulled an even bigger one, beating undefeated Ohio State in West Lafayette. Now we know for certain that whoever wins the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac 12 will have one loss to their names. All eyes now turn to the SEC, where Alabama prepares for its biggest test at LSU on Nov. 3; the ACC, where Clemson looked especially dominant in a win over previously undefeated NC State; and Notre Dame, which faces the pressure of needing to finish the regular season undefeated to feel confident in its playoff chances without sweating out conference championship weekend.
Maybe as the upsets roll in, there will be room for a one-loss Pac-12 champion to sneak into the field at the end. With a season-shifting win, Washington State has positioned itself well to profit from the next wave of weirdness.