Some teams achieve greatness, some teams stumble into it, some have greatness thrust upon them.
Washington State would seem to be all of those teams.
And some teams do the thrusting. Here we’re thinking of Oregon.
Now, even if you think greatness is still pending for the Cougars, at 5-0 they are at the very least on the verge of something great. And after the latest step Saturday’s 24-13 victory over the Ducks we conducted a hasty poll to find out just what that something might be.
“Six-and-oh,” offered defensive tackle Gary Holmes.
Mesmerizing in their single-mindedness are these Cougs.
And unimpeachable in their worthiness.
The fulcrum for this remarkable work-in-progress remains - and will into November - the back-to-back snuffing of the L.A. schools to start the season, unprecedented as that was. But if they continue on their current course, the Cougs will look back on this step as another crossroads - even if these Ducks end up as soup.
Wazzu hadn’t won in Autzen Stadium since 1989 - another hurdle turned to kindling.
“We’ve done the one thing,” said quarterback Ryan Leaf, referring to the L.A. sweep. “We might as well do all the others. Find out the last time we beat Washington in Seattle and we’ll work on that one, too.”
Even the Apple Cup can’t possibly smell of ambush the way this one did.
Talk about a set-up. The Duck defense - torched for 58 points by Stanford - had been diagnosed as terminal, the state’s most celebrated patient this side of Keiko the whale. The two quarterbacks at coach Mike Bellotti’s disposal not a bad choice of words, up to Saturday didn’t add up to one Leaf.
But Bellotti cunningly shuffled his defensive deck, No. 2 quarterback Akili Smith finally played like a No. 1 and the Autzen hostiles came at the Cougs with volume, invective and whatever they could scrape off the bottom of their chairs.
“I had to get two fans removed by security because they were shooting spitballs,” complained WSU receiver Shawn McWashington, whose stunning lay-out catch in the first quarter finally jump-started the Cougars’ motor and set up their first touchdown. “You see somebody with a straw and no drink and you know what’s going on. Fans were obnoxious the whole game. You expect them to get after you, but you don’t expect the cussing with kids sitting there.
“I suppose they were worse in ‘95, but that was a night game and the alcohol consumption was worse.”
Hmm. It isn’t game management stirring them up. This must be the only stadium in America that gives the band halftime off and pipes Jimmy Buffett’s “Margueritaville” over the P.A. instead.
“We looked at it like they were a wounded animal, giving up so many points,” said Cougars offensive tackle Ryan McShane. “When a wounded animal is going down, it’ll try anything.”
In this case, that included opening the game with six defensive backs and cornucopia of blitzes. And it worked - the Cougs had to punt the first four times they had the ball.
But it didn’t work - Oregon never led.
Gary Holmes blocked a field goal try. Dorian Boose and Leon Bender batted passes by Oregon starter Jason Maas into the hands of Holmes and Duane Stewart. Dee Moronkola won an end zone tug-of-war with Oregon’s Pat Johnson on what could have been the tying touchdown late in the first half - the interception that finally caused Bellotti to mutter, “No Maas.”
And Cougar defenders who couldn’t get close enough to Ducks tailback Saladin McCullough to make a positive I.D. in the first quarter held him to a yard on five carries in the second.
“I was nervous,” admitted Stewart. “If you get down, it’s tough to come back here. I was hoping we’d get the upper hand. Blocking that field goal was a huge play. Dee’s pick was a huge play.”
So was the five-play, 69-second touchdown drive that followed and produced a 14-0 lead at halftime - in many respects, the game in microcosm. The Cougars reeled off gains of 26 and 38 yards because the Ducks couldn’t wrap up Chris Jackson and Michael Black.
“Offensively, they’re going to make a play eventually,” reasoned Ducks linebacker Peter Sirmon, the team’s only real big-play defender. “They’re working as hard to make something happen as we are to stop it. But those plays shouldn’t come back-to-back-to-back. They make one and we need to get a three-and-out, no matter where they are on the field.
“Take away those plays and we had a good day. But after the game, you can’t take them away.”
In the end, when the Cougars needed to play great, they at least made great plays - and great calls, sending Black straight at the Ducks “where he could split and run by them,” said coach Mike Price. And break a tackle, something McCullough never did.
And when the Ducks needed to play great, they made a mess of it. They dropped passes - seven, we counted. They missed tackles. Their penalties were many and untimely, as was Bellotti’s devotion to the dive play when Oregon needed to go wide and get six.
He’ll look at the film today and see how Oregon could have won by 10 points.
The Cougars will watch it and understand how this validates them more than a blowout ever could.
“This is new territory for us,” said McShane, “and I’m excited. But our team acts like we’ve been undefeated before.”
The great ones always do.
, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review