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Blanchette: Up to Cougars to keep buzz going

John Blanchette.  (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
John Blanchette. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Mike Leach was impressed – with the play of his team off and on, yes, but also that cars en route to see it were backed up for blocks.

Perhaps he wasn’t aware that Albi Stadium sits at the flow-challenged corner of Mostly Vacant Strip Mall and Dead End Street (in more ways than one), and that things can come to a grinding halt there on any kid-soccer Saturday.

But, hey, a traffic jam is a traffic jam, and it’s a pleasure to see one coming to watch the Washington State Cougars and not bumper-to-bumper outbound by halftime.

Hard to argue with a sunny day, burgers on the grill, new hope and happy faces – 10,713 of them.

Ten K? For a spring scrimmage? In Spokane?

Absolutely – but the Cougars shouldn’t be putting out feelers to join the SEC quite yet.

This still isn’t football’s-a-way-of-life country like Texas, where 46,000 turned out for the spring game. Or like Michigan (25,000). Or LSU (33,000). At Oklahoma, they doubled what the Cougs drew, though 20,000 seems low for the Sooners. Maybe the concession stands ran out of grits and calf fries.

Heck, this was only the second biggest football crowd at Albi in the last 10 months.

But who’s counting?

“The buzz here,” said Elliott Bosch, the Cougar center who played a few high school games at Albi, “was really fun.”

That buzz has been a constant since Leach was coaxed out of the Keys back in December to try to make Wazzu football relevant again, and the momentum it’s generated has been unprecedented in its own way. It’s swept up the campus, Cougs both diehard and disaffected, and even ambivalent strangers.

Now it’s getting on time for the team to generate the buzz.

The Cougars tried on Saturday, playing against themselves. Leach’s spread-and-dread offense produced a bunch of 30-yard-plus pass plays, including a sensational 84-yarder from Jeff Tuel to Marquess Wilson. The defense countered with a couple of interceptions, a couple of hits that drew “oohs” and a bunch of touch-football sacks, most of which would have been real ones, too.

So the 10K got bang for their entertainment buck – oh, right, it was free – but didn’t start budgeting for a Rose Bowl trip.

It was still practice, not a recital.

“It’s kind of like if a hitter in baseball were to go up and check swing each time,” Leach said. “We had some check-swingers – and then, of course, the results were poor.”

Hmm. Was he assessing the scrimmage or the Mariners’ game?

The Cougars can be cut some slack because they’re breaking in a new staff and system – and vice versa – though that circumstance produces its own energy, too.

“It’s been fun learning every day,” said Bosch. “It’s also given some guys a new shot. Maybe with the old staff they had their place and that was it, but now a lot of guys are getting chances.”

But few will find the step-back-step-forward rhythm often attendant to a coaching change satisfying once the season starts, given all this buzz (and, yes, the price tag that came with it).

So it’s a concern that Leach hasn’t felt he’s been getting the best effort of his marquee – make that Marquess – player, and maybe a few others. And it’s a worry that the offensive line which needs to keep the quarterback upright – a considerable failing last season – is letting second-teamer Logan Mayes blow in for 41/2 sacks.

Well, the kid has some genes that probably make him comfortable in the backfield. But still, those wide line splits looked like a thruway.

“It takes away the edge rush to some extent,” Mayes allowed, “but it also opens up gaps on the inside. It’s good for the offense – it opens up gaps and the quarterback can see downfield more, but at the same time if they face athletic defensive linemen, they can take advantage of that. But our offensive linemen are still learning. I don’t think it’s any cause for concern.”

As for Wilson and the other emerging receiving star, Dominique Williams, their scrimmage performances were encouraging, and sometimes spectacular – though Leach still grumped that, “If they want to be good players that periodically make great catches, that’s where they’re at right now.”

Tuel had a slightly different take on Wilson.

“ Let him know that you’re looking for him or you need him,” Tuel said, “and he’ll be right there for you.”

Fall still seems far away, but the time of need is still near enough. And Saturday’s breathtaking fade routes and sideline streaks won’t change the fact that they came in an intramural setting.

“This is a starting point,” Leach said. “This is a far cry from any destination.”

And there’s traffic en route that can’t be negotiated on buzz alone.