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John Blanchette: Washington State helps itself to some self-help advice

WSU’s Cody O'Connell celebrates with teammates after his team defeated Montana State. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
WSU’s Cody O'Connell celebrates with teammates after his team defeated Montana State. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Once is a hiccup. Twice is a habit.

Three times, well, if the Washington State Cougars were going to lose to a Big Sky Conference team three years running, there’s no telling what you’d call that, except that would be cause for hara-kiri among the fan base.

In a season of true promise, the last thing Wazzu needed was to take a cold shower in week one and spend the next six generating enough heat to overcome the chill, as the Cougars did a year ago. And the year before that.

It almost seemed as if matters had reached the point where the Cougs needed a self-help book to whip this FCS neurosis.

Luckily the WSU library was still open at kickoff. Good thing it keeps hours as late as Pac-12 commish Larry Scott’s TV schedule.

And the Cougars apparently devoured every chapter, if not every word, in their 31-0 victory over Montana State on Saturday night.

Outliers: The Story of Success – The FCS-over-FBS upset happens a handful of times every year – it’s not like it’s just been the Cougs, people. Ten times last year, 15 times back in 2013. Programs like Iowa, Northwestern, Florida, Colorado and Pitt have all made the walk-to-the-locker-room- of-shame in the last five years. Friday was the 10th anniversary of Appalachian State beating Michigan. Oregon State had a narrow escape against Portland State on Saturday, and later Liberty beat Baylor.

The lesson: Throw money at the right FCS opponent. Montana State – 4-7 a year ago, as one-dimensional as Chuck Norris’ acting chops and with more sophomores than seniors in the starting lineup – was very much that. Then again, Howard – 2-9 in 2016 and a 43-point underdog – beat UNLV on Saturday, too. So there’s no bible for this sort of thing.

How to Stop Worrying and Start Living – “We had no choice but to win,” sighed running back James Williams afterward. “If we’d lost the game, we’d probably be out their scrimmaging right now.”

How to Win Friends and Influence People – FS1, the nominal broadcast outlet for Saturday’s game, stuck with the Angels-Rangers baseball game that went into extra innings for an hour after kickoff at Martin Stadium. No matter. All the Cougars TV audience missed was quarterback Luke Falk’s first 19 completions in the 20-for-20 roll to open the game, his record-breaking 91st career touchdown pass and the start of Hercules Mata’afa’s Outland Trophy campaign.

For once, you didn’t have to have DirecTV to miss a Pac-12 telecast. Hey, maybe the Cougars marketing people can use this as a reminder to people that there’s still a reason to, you know, go to the games.

Seven Habits of Highly Effective People – The shovel pass to James Williams. The checkdown pass to James Williams. The flat pass to James Williams. Swings, stabs, shoots and stops – call them what you want, but they all added up for the Cougars. Falk went to the sophomore running back so often the video is going to give Pac-12 defensive game planners the willies. His 13 catches and 163 yards were both WSU records for running backs.

By the way, if they’re going to keep throwing it to the back they call Boobie, better call it the steam shovel pass.

Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy – Mike Leach won his first season opener in six tries at WSU. Maybe it’s crazy, but it seems like a good precedent, though you know how Leach’s distaste for the idea of his players feeling anything close to satisfied. Or, you know, the idea that anything means anything once it’s already happened.

“Probably no more significant than it was to win nine games last year,” he said of breaking that first-game maiden.”

Bet not one of the 30, 254 customers echoed that notion.

Awaken the Giant Within – The Cougars defense pitched its first shutout since a 42-0 whitewash of Idaho in 2013. Mata’afa’s sack/tackles-for-loss count totaled four. Jalen Thompson had his first career pick. Daniel Ekuale and Nnamdi Oguayho – two important pieces on the Cougars defensive line, which seems to be the unit dogged by outside doubt so far – made some impressive stops.

“They were disruptive all day,” Leach said.

You Can Heal Your Life –It was always rationalized after those losses to Portland State and Eastern the last two years that, hey, no biggie – the Cougars did go on to win eight regular-season games. Nor did it stop them from enjoying a postseason bowl trip.

Maybe they even allowed Leach to drive his men harder – and drive home more lessons.

But they also chipped away at the Cougars’ legitimacy, no matter what they achieved.

“This gives us something to build on,” tackle Cole Madison said. “The last couple of years we had to take a step back and regroup. This just gives us something to look forward to.”

The power of habit. This sounds like a good one to get into.


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