ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – On Thursday night, cannon fire couldn’t have stirred Josh Swogger. On the eve of his first start at quarterback for Washington State, the strong-armed sophomore “got a great night’s sleep.” “My nervous night was Wednesday,” Swogger said. “I couldn’t really sleep on Wednesday night. I think I stayed up until three or four in the morning, tossing and turning in bed. “But once we met and watched all the film (Thursday), I just relaxed and said, ‘This is it – this is how it’s going to be.’ ”
Which is not to say he and the Cougars didn’t give their fans some nerve-wracking moments Friday night before pulling out a 21-17 victory over New Mexico in their season opener at University Stadium.
The focus of a good deal of that worry, Swogger nonetheless produced one of the better first starts in Cougar quarterback history – completing 24 of 38 passes for 240 yards and three touchdowns, set off by a couple of interceptions that resulted in no real damage.
For comparison purposes, his position coach – Timm Rosenbach – threw for just 58 yards in his first start as a freshman in 1986. Two other freshmen, Ryan Leaf and Drew Bledsoe, passed for 291 and 188 yards, respectively, in their first starting assignments, while sophomores Jack Thompson and Mark Rypien threw for 265 and 209 apiece.
But none of them may have had the defining moment Swogger produced in leading a 14-play, 82-yard drive that brought the Cougars back from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter and put them in striking position.
“My dad gave me a Bible verse before the game and I just thought about that and got recomposed and focused in,” said Swogger.
“I struggled in the third quarter. I was getting blitzed quite a bit and I missed some throws, but in the fourth quarter I locked it in and saw things a lot better.”
Cornerbacks have to grow up in a hurry at WSU. It was true of Jason David, who had to fill Chris Martin’s shoes in 2001. It was true for Karl Paymah, who had to follow Marcus Trufant’s act last year. And the heat was on Alex Teems in the wake of David’s departure after the 2003 season.
First he had to win the job, which he did in spring ball.
Friday night, he cemented it – coming up with a pair of critical interceptions, including the one that set up the Cougars’ first touchdown after they’d played the Lobos to a scoreless tie at halftime.
Two other potential picks got through his hands, but he silenced New Mexico’s best threat after the Cougs had grabbed the lead by intercepting a long ball Lobos quarterback Kole McKamey had left up for grabs with 3:10 to play.
“Alex Teems did a tremendous job of coming up with the football tonight,” said defensive coordinator Robb Akey, “and it’s got to be huge for him. He’d certainly earned the job, but at the same time he hadn’t played yet. It’s got to be a great confidence boost to make the kind of plays he did.”
It wasn’t just the interceptions. Teems, a junior from San Pedro, Calif., had three pass break ups and a tackle for loss among his six stops.
“It means a lot to me, my family, my coaches and teammates,” said Teems. “I’m sure the coaches had a lot of worries whether I could get the job done or not, but whether it was me or somebody else, somebody was going to make those plays. I was just blessed to be in the position to make them.”
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Linebacker Will Derting and safety Hamza Abdullah, as expected, were in the starting lineup despite injuries sustained early in fall practice that had threatened to keep them sidelined. Both wore “clubs” on their injured hands – Abdullah to protect his surgically repaired thumb, Derting to pad his dislocated wrist.
And they made their presence felt early, making the tackles on New Mexico’s first two offensive plays.
“There was a few times my fingers were kind of exposed, but nothing serious,” Abdullah said. “Getting that first tackle kind of broke any kind of doubt I had about it.”
Running back Allen Thompson didn’t play, despite being cleared for action after suffering a lower back strain in camp. Offensive coordinator Mike Levenseller said the Cougars could have used Thompson if necessary. … New Mexico running back DonTrell Moore’s 167 rushing yards are the most allowed by WSU since Ohio State’s Maurice Clarett ran for 230 in 2002. Moore has nine consecutive 100-yard games at home. … New Mexico hadn’t played a scoreless first half since 1997, and WSU records didn’t show any games since 1986 being deadlocked at zero after two quarters. … The Cougars haven’t scored a touchdown in the first quarter of their last six season openers. … Linebacker Pat Bennett suffered a slight concussion in the third quarter.