PULLMAN – To borrow shamelessly from YouTube’s Greatest Coaching Rants, they are who we thought they were.
Oh, not Washington State. The Cougars’ first two opponents.
Or maybe not quite. Saturday’s blocking sled, UNLV, was quite possibly the most feckless outfit to make the trip to Pullman since Blair Business College lost by 86 points here in 1907 – though to be fair, the Typing Tigers lost several key players to carpal tunnel that year.
Of course, we’re leaving the Cougs of 2008 and 2009 out of the pool – figuring that, off what we’ve seen so far, the current edition deserves to be excused from same-breath mention.
In blasting Idaho State last week and the Rebels 59-7 on a blast-furnace Saturday, the Cougars have scored their most points in back-to-back games since running it up on the bookkeepers and old Cheney Normal 104 years ago. Maybe that says more about the opposition than it does about WSU – or maybe it doesn’t matter, at least for the moment.
“It’s good to have a smile on my face,” said linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis, “and good to see teammates with smiles on their faces.”
They wear them well.
And the real tests come soon enough, starting next weekend against San Diego State – and, it appears, successively nastier opposition in weeks beyond. Coach Paul Wulff, for one, welcomes the graded incline.
“I would have liked to have had a schedule like this earlier than this,” he sighed. “You look back at those 10-win seasons (at WSU, 2001-03) and the nonconference schedules. There’s Idahos, Nevadas, Gramblings – and they only played eight league games instead of nine. Those types of schedules help you grow your program.”
Well, hold on – two of those teams had to deal with Ohio State, Notre Dame and Colorado, all Top 25 opponents at the time. Besides, last year’s Cougs came within a whisper of fainting against Montana State.
Devaluing history isn’t going to put the great struggle of Wulff’s Cougars in a better light.
The Cougs can do that on their own, and did it quite well against the Rebels.
No smiley faces were quite so bright as the ones that attended the effort of quarterback Marshall Lobbestael, the senior stick-around who finds himself trying to fulfill expectations once piled heavily on the shoulders of the now-injured Jeff Tuel. The Lobster’s 361-yard, five-touchdown day becomes another happy passage in the Book of Just Desserts for Career Cougs – even if none of his Wazzu family betrayed the slightest notion that they might have to rally to his aid.
“We hadn’t even talked about it,” insisted defensive coordinator Chris Ball. “They know the situation. I think if you just move on and don’t make a big deal about it, kids seem to take care of themselves.”
Almost as comforting to the Cougar constituency had to be the one-week gains made by Ball’s defense. After surrendering 430 yards in passing to lowly ISU, the clamp-down was fierce. UNLV managed all of 158 total yards, Wazzu’s best defensive effort since 2004 and No. 8 in history. The Rebels’ passing attack was beyond hapless, but a Cougar defensive line that’s looking a little underrated gummed up the UNLV power game.
“It’s what you give them,” said linebacker C.J. Mizell, “not what they take.”
It was a mostly relentless effort without a lot of telling moments, but there was a juncture early – the Cougs up 14-0 and UNLV near midfield. Hoffman-Ellis made a terrific read on Caleb Herring’s third-down pass – but a hair late, the ball zipping by him to Michael Johnson for a first down.
“If I’d caught it, that was in the house,” he said.
Such plays not made that have birthed eventual catastrophe for Wazzu in recent years. Instead, the Cougs forced UNLV to punt after Hoffman-Ellis’ linebacking mate, Sekope Kaufusi, dropped Bradley Randle for a 2-yard loss on third down.
When Ball looks at his defense in action, it is the linebacking which gives him real hope. That the most gifted of them all, Mizell, has gone from practice problem child to game-day captain is the biggest part of the equation.
“Those guys have got a chance to be really, really good,” Ball said. “Other places I’ve been, in terms of potential, I don’t know if I’ve been around their equal. They’re the whole package – fast, strong, good size, smart, easy to coach, show up every day.
“They’re football players.”
The Cougs really do have some of those. Now they need to hit better pitching.
“It’s progress,” Ball allowed. “Anytime you can show progress, there’s hope. There’s energy, excitement, confidence – all the things we’ve been preaching. Now we have an end result, something to hang our hat on and say, ‘Hey, keep doing this – and this is what could happen.’”
Maybe more than being who we think they are, they can be what they need to be.