October 31, 2004 in Sports

Cougs put best face on ugliness

John Blanchette The Spokesman-Revew
 

PULLMAN – Imagine Augusta National on Masters Sunday. Paired with Tiger Woods and all even after 54 holes, Duffy Waldorf steps to the first tee.

And pulls out his pitching wedge.

And hits it left-handed.

There is a fine line between the desperate measures called for in desperate times and – to borrow a line from every frat rat’s favorite movie – a really futile and stupid gesture being done on somebody’s part.

On Saturday, Washington State may have crossed that line.

But at least that wasn’t the only line the Cougars crossed against USC.

With a pair of touchdowns 10 seconds apart about 20 minutes from game’s end, the Cougars managed to preserve their streak of having scored in 1.2 million straight games. Or maybe that’s the number of beers served at The Coug after the predictable halftime bleacher exodus.

Whatever.

In any case, in losing to the Trojans 42-12, the Cougars were spared, if only subtly, the ignominy of the shutout hung on rival Washington by USC the week before. That ended UW’s scoring streak – which at the time was in excess of Wazzu’s, now at 235 games – and gave the Cougs a neener-neener in a season when any one-upmanship in the state is mostly dubious.

Indeed, don’t you sort of long for last month’s brief quarterback tempest? Doesn’t that seem like the good old days?

The Cougs have tumbled a ways since then – all the way through a winless October – and finally seemed to topple over the edge Saturday by sending Loren Langley out to onsides the opening kickoff, a bit of vaudeville they’d been rehearsing all week.

Trying some sleight-of-foot, Langley’s off-leg, lefty bunt advanced the ball all of 2 yards. The Trojans were in the end zone five plays later.

Spotting USC a 7-0 lead is a little like spotting a shark your left arm 100 miles out to sea, but the Cougs’ generosity didn’t stop there – failing to cover USC’s pooch kick after the touchdown. And less than a minute later it was 14-0 USC.

Make that both arms.

“If anybody in the country’s down 14-0 to these guys,” noted WSU’s freshman dazzler, Michael Bumpus, “it’s a pretty sure bet they can hold it.”

At that point, the Dad’s Day crowd of 35,117 began praying for return of the rain, hail and snow that enlivened pre-game hopes for an upset, but only because it would excuse them for bailing even before halftime.

Not that anyone really expected Wazzu to beat the Trojans, or even sneak inside the 24-point spread, but it was obvious at least two-thirds of the paying customers had contingency plans. The stadium couldn’t have emptied out any faster had it been tipped on its side.

But it’s a funny thing about desperation. Apparently, it was only a downer to the folks in the stands.

“Hey, it was unfortunate the kick turned out like it did,” shrugged punter Kyle Basler, “because we’d worked on it all week. But against a team like that, you have to have a few little tricks in your bag because of how talented they are.”

In other words, Wazzu wasn’t going to smashmouth the Trojans, or even finesse them. But maybe if the Cougs could distract them with a joy buzzer or a whoopee cushion …

And if they couldn’t, well, no one was of a mind to poor-mouth the concept.

“One thing about our team – we always support each other,” Bumpus said. “We supported our coaches’ decisions and play calls and we tried to execute them. Unfortunately, it started out bad but you’ve got to bounce back.”

That’s an awfully admirable stand for a team whose growth and maturity has been called into question often enough.

Besides, it wasn’t just the kickoffs that went wrong.

The one time the Cougs didn’t keep a punt out of the hands of USC’s remarkable Reggie Bush, the sophomore everything-back took it in two opposite directions and 57 yards for a touchdown. Quarterback Matt Leinart – 1A to Bush’s 1B in the Trojans’ Heisman entry – carved up the Cougars with 23 completions to eight different targets. USC’s defensive line brutalized Cougars quarterback Alex Brink with five sacks and held WSU to minus rushing yardage for the second straight year – though at least this time the Cougs made a 14-yard improvement.

That’s the best-face stuff. It was a little bit contagious Saturday.

“It was as ugly a scenario as could have been presented,” said defensive coordinator Robb Akey, “and yet there was never a letdown, never a hung head.”

USC’s visit to Pullman was the first by a top-ranked team, a footnote inflated into such fanfare this week it brought to mind the day the town got its first McDonald’s 20-odd years ago. Alas, the Cougs are 1-6 against No. 1s, and it isn’t about location, location, location.

The team that knocked off Troy Aikman and UCLA in 1988 had 13 senior starters and a quarterback that would jump early to the National Football League. This one has seven senior starters and possibly only one draft pick.

It is what it is. Not reloading, not rebuilding, but renewal.

“We had a great three-year run,” said Akey, “because a lot of good players got to play at the same time. I think we’re going to be back to being that kind of team again. But all of a sudden we’re wanting and expecting guys who haven’t played that much to the same things – and the kids expect it too.

“There’s a part that has to have the reality, the understanding, that there are going to be some plays hit against us. That’s not making excuses, but we have to understand where we’re at. We’re going to be right back where we were, but it’s been a little more painful than we hoped it would be.”

They will, over time, rue the amount of that pain which has been self-inflicted, all the target practice they took on their toes. But as losses go, Saturday’s could be chalked up to a brush with greatness and the inevitable lessons.

Like knowing when to leave that wedge in your bag.


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