Gold: Pac-2 title matchup the game to watch in Week 4
There is a word to describe the scenario in which Oregon State and Washington State find themselves in this weekend.
I’m just not sure what that word is.
Ironic? Tortured? Unfair? Awkward?
When the 2 squads meet Saturday in Pullman, Wash., both will be ranked for the 1st time in the 97-year history of the game … while simultaneously being the 2 Pac-12 teams left at the altar, with 10 other current and soon-to-be-former conference-mates having found cushier setups. A hundred teams would want to trade places with either of them right now … and no schools in the country would stand in their stead with such an uncertain realignment future.
Both are led by talented young coaches entering the primes of their career … and those coaches could get plucked away at a moment’s notice, knowing that there may be a cap on their immediate futures.
Ironic? Tortured? Unfair? Awkward?
Saturday’s game in Pullman is all those things at once.
And it should also be some damn good football.
In a vacuum, this game would already be one of the biggest games in college football.
Only 5 games on the Week 4 docket feature 2 ranked teams, and the Pac-12 has 3 of them.
One features the media-driven manufactured drama of No. 10 Oregon vs. No. 19 Colorado, the other features a walking wounded No.11 Utah team hosting an on-the-rise No. 22-ranked UCLA squad.
No. 14 Oregon State and No. 21 Washington State both have retooled offenses, powerful defenses featuring 1st-rate pass rushes and solid-to-spectacular running games. They are well coached by 2 of the game’s most anonymous leaders, one home-grown in former Beavers star Jonathan Smith and one who has fully bought into the Pullman pull, Jake Dickert, who loves the singular focus of Wazzu football in the Palouse.
Both leaders have struck the perfect chord in getting their players to rally around their respective causes, to ignore anything beyond 2023, heck, beyond Saturday.
“I think the meaning is really Game 1 of conference play. Want to get off to a good start,” Smith said during his Monday press conference. “I’m confident to say I think both programs will play high-level football for the entire season. I know it’s gonna be competitive over there and obviously, yeah, we’re trying to win the game. So those are the kinds of things I think about.”
The media may be focused on the plight of both teams, but the coaches and players aren’t.
“It’s Cougs vs. everybody,” Dickert told Spokane’s KOMO News. “It’s that chip on your shoulders. Blue collar mindset. It’s maybe having less but expecting more and be willing to go out there and not making excuses. So, we know who we are. We’re in a position where we’ve done this for over 100 years. We’re always fighting for a little bit of respect.”
As 1 of 4 founding members of the original Pacific Coast Conference in 1915, Oregon State’s ties to college football’s once premier conference out west extend further back than all but a few, and Wazzu isn’t too far behind, joining the league 2 years later.
And now it’s gone, at least in its former form.
The Beavers and Cougars tried desperately to hang on, or to at least not get left behind, but their bigger, better, badder in-state comrades — Oregon and Washington — absconded like a thief in the night to the Big Ten, joining UCLA and USC, and spurring Utah, Arizona and Arizona State to join Colorado in an ever-expanding Big 12. Once Stanford and Cal decided to join the now goofily named Atlantic Coast Conference, OSU and WSU were left in the dust, left out of the party despite boasting better football and overall athletic profiles than many Power 5 athletic departments.
Dickert said as much on Sept. 9, when his Cougars upset Wisconsin for the 2nd year in a row.
Washington State head coach Jake Dickert after defeating No. 19 Wisconsin:
“We belong in the Power 5‼️” pic.twitter.com/oTg0yaAaLR
— On3 (@On3sports) September 10, 2023
“This moment, it’s everything. We belong in the Power 5,” he said. “These kids have worked their ass off. I’m so damn proud of them, to double down in the moment. We’re all we got, we’re all we need.”
There’s only one problem with that.
There is no longer a Power 5. There is a more powerful Core 4, and the Cougars are on the outside looking in.
“There’s a lot of things I would really love to say, but at the end of the day, our team belongs at the highest level,” Dickert said after the game. “Our program does. I believe that. That’s in my heart. I say that with a meaning. And for all this stuff to go on, I think it’s just another way for our guys to go out there and prove who we are.”
Back to football, and the here and now. Both teams deserve that much, if not the freshmen whose future is in flux, then the seniors performing their swan songs.
The most alluring part of the matchup is the head-to-head between 2 passing games in very different positions than they were in last year.
OSU dipped into the transfer portal to jumpstart its offense, landing DJ Uiagalelei, who has been very good through 3 games, boasting a 162.8 passer efficiency rating on 42-of-68 passing for 630 yards and 6 touchdowns with 2 interceptions and 4 rushing scores. Alongside the dominant Damien Martinez, a shoo-in to lead the league in rushing yardage, Uiagalelei has helped the Beavers average 41 points per game.
But it is on defense that Oregon State really sings. The Beavers lead the league in total defense at just 260 yards per game and rank 3rd in scoring defense at 11 points per game.
They’ll have their hands full on Saturday against Cameron Ward and a retooled Cougars passing attack. Despite losing nearly every productive wideout to the transfer portal, Ward has thrived under new offensive coordinator Ben Arbuckle, completing 78-of-108 passes for 986 yards and 9 scores with zero interceptions.
“On offense the one thing Coach Arbuckle has done from the moment he stepped in our building was just inject life into our offense,” Dickert said at Pac-12 Media Day. The stats are out there. He led the number one passing down the field in Western Kentucky last year. That fits Cam Ward’s skill set to a T. To bring somebody in with that type of life, quarterback training, we fixed Cam’s drop, the fundamentals. People are seeing it all over Netflix on the quarterbacks show, the synergy between Coach and Cam, what we have going into year two, I think you’re going to see that on the field. I think our offense is primed to take a big step forward.”