September 8, 2012

Blanchette: Cougs will remain work in progress

By The Spokesman-Review
 
SR photo

Sports columnist John Blanchette.
(Full-size photo)

PULLMAN – You wouldn’t recognize the place.

Full.

Well, fundamentally full. At least it was announced as Washington State’s first home-opening sellout – 33,598 worth – since the Truman administration, which in some respects tells you all you need to know about Cougar football.

And that would change. It always does. Three minutes before halftime is usually the tipping point.

Whatever the level of intoxication over Mike Leach and the Promise of Better Days that helped goose the gate Saturday, the prospect of a different intoxication always seems to persuade a goodly portion of Martin Stadium’s populace to repopulate elsewhere. It would be nice to report that the new guy’s bottle rockets and Roman candles kept them in their seats here at the local unveiling, but apparently the fuses are damp or something.

In fact, what we saw was a Pac-12 team that had to send its prime-time receiver in on defense to bat down a Hail Mary on the game’s last play and preserve a 24-20 victory over the earnest shirttail cousin from the up the road, Eastern Washington.

This is the sort of thing that had Wazzu’s digital army indignantly screeching for a coup two years ago when it was Montana State in town being all scary, but honeymoons are a funny old dog.

Besides, look around. The Big Sky was absolute hell on the Conference of Champeens this weekend.

Sacramento State upset Colorado, the second year the Hornets have stung a Pac-12 team. Southern Utah had Cal on the ropes for three quarters. By those standards, the Cougs were aces. Twenty months removed from a national championship, EWU is a saltier customer than those two, if still at a different altitude in the football flight plan.

Or what is it Leach told his guys after a look at the Eagles on film?

“These guys play like we want to play,” he said.

And that was still true Saturday.

“They didn’t seem to have the ups and downs we did,” Leach noted.

They also had the ball for 18 more plays, outgained the Cougars by 144 yards and lost by the breadth of two kicks – the sensational 60-yard field goal WSU’s Andrew Furney coaxed over the crossbar, and a PAT Kalafitoni Pole got his paw on when things were getting interesting. In the FCS realm, the Eags are a lot more special than just a few gifted receivers paired with another drop-down quarterback.

And speaking of interesting and special, the Cougars aren’t. Yet.

Leach, as he should, would disagree.

“On all sides of the ball we’re explosive,” he insisted. “Now we have to be consistent.

“There’s not a lot of context to it. There’s good plays – this was a good play, that was a good play – but if they’re in piles, then it’s a lot more explosive. I’m encouraged by the fact we’re capable of it. There’s a lot of teams out there that aren’t even capable of it.”

The Cougars do lead the country in touchdowns taken away by penalty flag – two more this week – or left on the goal line. Throw in a field goal that Furney missed from 20 yards closer than his big boomer, and that does suggest something carbonated under a cork.

But it should have bubbled over against a FCS opponent, and it didn’t.

“We need to expect to win and have more confidence,” explained quarterback Jeff Tuel, “and that’s not something you do by snapping your fingers. We need to earn that and build that, and it’s a process.”

He’s probably right. It’s just that process isn’t sexy.

Not that the short attention spans in the stands got that way because the Cougs were enduring another fizzly second-half shutout. The early bail has been a staple, dating back probably to the Truman administration.

“As long as we’re winning, people are going to be happy,” Tuel contended. “We’re not concerned with numbers, we’re concerned with letters, if you will – with Ws.”

And later he said this: “We need to do our part for (fans) to do theirs.”

That’s almost as generous as Leach declaring, “The fans here are incredible.

“I heard this was a great place to play and coach. There’s a personality here that doesn’t exist other places. This is a special place.”

Hmm. If it was really all that special, there wouldn’t have been more Cougar defenders in the end zone guarding that last-gasp EWU pass than there were Cougar fans in the horseshoe watching it up close.

But maybe they wanted to get to a TV for an early start on watching Washington’s humiliation at the hands of LSU. A Huskies drubbing is more gratifying than a narrow escape over an Eastern, you know.

Ah, well. As the man said, it’s a process.

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