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Blanchette: 2013 Cougs remain work in progress

The com- pany line from Washington State Football, Inc., is that the team we last knew bears virtually no resemblance to the team we’ll be getting to know.

Night and day. Leaps and bounds. The unknown and the known.

“They understand us now,” is how WSU defensive coordinator Mike Breske put it. “Last fall, it felt like spring ball, all the way through.”

Then why was the big dress rehearsal of the spring so, well, 2012?

For pretty much the same reasons the Cougars didn’t go from grim to gadzooks in their first go-round under coach Mike Leach. Because progress is rarely absolute. Because consistency has to be prized as much as isolated explosiveness.

Because the Cougs have a long bloody way to go, in every respect. Still.

They were back in Albi Stadium on Saturday hoping to show how far they’d come in the annual Crimson and Gray Game, now a Spokane tradition stretching back two consecutive years. And not just show it to those in attendance, but to the football-hungry audience on Pac-12 Networks that’s been subsisting on softball since the end of the basketball season.

Speaking of attendance, it was announced at 8,340. That’s a drop of more than 2,300 from last year, even though admission was adjusted from “Free” to “Did we mention it’s still free?”

At this rate, WSU athletic director Bill Moos will be able to stage Spokane Week in Spangle in a few years, saving a few cents on gas.

Let’s assume the missing stayed home to catch the telecast, desperate for Rick Neuheisel’s take.

But, hey, it’s spring football.

And as such, conclusions are to be drawn with the same risks attached to baseball’s Opening Day, pre-season NBA basketball and any car ride when the warranty’s still in effect.

Still, there’s always room for honest assessment.

“We’ve come a long way this spring,” grumbled center Elliott Bosch, “and we kind of reverted back to how we played last season. So it’s disappointing.”

Yes, there were stretches of the Cougars’ spring game that were (oxymoron alert) positively painful to watch. Dropped passes. Passes that weren’t going to be caught in a gill net. Sacks. A running back doing a modified horsey canter out to the huddle when “Gangnam Style” played over the loudspeaker.

Most of this happened in a dreadful first half, not unlike the stumbling the Cougs did out of the blocks in many a game last fall.

So much for dramatic differences.

What good was going on seemed to be happening on the defensive side of the ball, even though there were strict no-blitz orders and the looks were basic and, presumably, predictable. Even with some notable contributors sidelined, linebacker Darryl Monroe insisted that, “We’ve established an identity for our defense.”

And that is?

“We’re a defense that runs to the ball, we get there and we’re going to be pissed off when we get there,” he said. “I kind of like that idea. I don’t know about you guys.”

Well, it won’t fit on a T-shirt, but it’s a sound bite.

As for the offense, well, the quarterback sweepstakes didn’t do much to sort itself out. Connor Halliday, the quasi-incumbent, didn’t hike his completion percentage or cut his interceptions enough to grab the competition by the throat. Austin Apodaca looked spectacularly ill at ease until getting it together after halftime, so maybe he has more than a freshman’s grasp of necessary mentality.

“We can’t get in the fetal position and cry about it,” he said, referring to the fluffs. “We’ve got to go on to the next play.”

The pinball counter numbers expected from a Leach offense didn’t materialize last season; the Cougs scored two or fewer touchdowns in half their games. And it won’t get better without dramatic improvement on the offensive line, where the number of veterans might not be as important as the new faces Leach has brought in.

“We have a lot of competition now,” Bosch said, “and I think we’ve developed a better attitude. The little mistakes – which you saw today, unfortunately – are being cut back. The penalties, getting pushed back too far.”

And then there were the sacks – 57 of them. No team in the country gave up more. That’s a number, Bosch acknowledged, that highlights the issue. But it can be misleading, too. Quarterbacks hanging on to the ball too long and receivers not strong enough to get separation can warp the math.

“But it’s not fun,” Bosch admitted, “to be the problem.”

Well, on a 3-9 team, the plural of that is always proper. The Cougs had plenty to go around, as they did Saturday. That may have been merely a hiccup in an otherwise productive spring.

Or a reminder that even wannabe air raiders need time to gain altitude.