Blanchette: Cougs’ football display bigger than sideshows

PULLMAN – Now this is progress.

A year ago when the Mike Leach shakedown cruise first docked at Martin Stadium, the grand new wing attached to the south grandstands upstaged anything Washington State could piece together on the field below. Batting down a Hail Mary to eke out victory over the little cousins from up the road was the perfect way to keep expectations just as low for the rest of the season, however.

But Saturday? Well, at their home opener, the Cougs unveiled another addition to the man cave – the 80-foot big screen on the east end.

And guess what? The only time people paid much notice was to look up and see the replay of another home-run touchdown pass or game-breaking pick-six.

What do you know? Actual football over accoutrements.

Yes, this is what’s supposed to happen in Food Chain Football, when the big, bad Pac-12 shark invites some FCS krill for a payday and a pounding. Except at WSU of late, it hasn’t worked out that way. Of the last four such encounters, the Cougars were lucky to escape twice and had starting quarterbacks blasted to smithereens in two romps.

Fans were calling for an end to FCS scheduling, not because they sought better entertainment but because the risks were too high.

Not this time.

After a few fits and starts, the Cougars blew away Southern Utah 48-10, not the high-water mark for the Good Ship Leach but the high-point mark, and the sort of thing everyone was expecting when he came out of exile in Margaritaville and dusted off the attack that brought him to prominence at Texas Tech.

“I like watching the offense put up a lot of points,” said cornerback Damante Horton, who is putting up plenty himself.

Cynics can deride the opponent to their withering content, but the Thunderbirds had done in one FBS team already this season, albeit not a member of the cool kids’ club (South Alabama). The point is, these exercises can be meaningful and productive. Business is business, and it needs to be taken care of.

And so the Cougars did.

“That was probably the first time since I’ve been here at WSU that we’ve been able to step on their throat and not let up,” quarterback Connor Halliday said.

For the FCS Cinderellas like Southern Utah, these midnights seem to strike the third week of the season.

Being underprepared or underestimated leads to all sorts of chaos in Week 1 (see Eastern Washington over Oregon State, or North Dakota State over Kansas State). A few hangover upsets are pulled off in Week 2. By this weekend, reality sets in.

Or it did for SUU coach Ed Lamb, especially once Horton took an interception 72 yards for a 28-10 Wazzu lead at halftime, a school-record tying third in his career.

“Maybe we would have had a chance to wrestle around a little bit more and get a chance to climb back in the game,” Lamb said, “but that pick-six just made it so our margin for error was zero.”

Like his stomach for risk. Down 18 points and at midfield with a fourth-and-1 to open the second half, Lamb waved in his punter, and the white flag.

It didn’t make much difference. The Cougars scored the next three times they had the ball. Halliday was mostly masterful, dropping long balls with precision, mixing up his pitches to 10 receivers. Even his third end-zone interception in as many games was because of a receiver taking the wrong route. His efficiency allowed some time for backup Austin Apodaca to “lose his virginity out there,” Halliday cracked.

(The kid was on a roll. Asked about his completion-to-himself when one ball slipped out of his hands, Halliday managed to blame it on his center. “Elliott (Bosch) sweats a lot,” he said.)

Eventually, the defense – which carried all the water in the big upset of USC last week – caught up, limiting the T-Birds to 61 yards in the second half, and putting heat on quarterback Aaron Cantu that hadn’t been there. Linebacker Cyrus Coen attributed that to “guys just juiced playing at home finally calming down a little,” though Horton had another take.

“We were just getting tired of them getting first downs,” he said.

In Year One of the Leach calendar, it was difficult to discern improvement week to week, a disappointment bigger than the won-lost record, to which the customers had been numbed. Maybe that was to be expected in the regime change, but there was a higher price tag being paid for bad football. The gains so far this season are already more obvious.

Even with some qualifications, that’s progress, indeed.


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