PULLMAN – Whew.
Winning it all a shade under midnight probably isn’t how the Cougars drew this up last week while they were preparing for Boise State inside their practice bubble.
They didn’t envision needing four quarters, three overtimes and every lucky break in the book to shake off the pesky midmajor on the opposite sideline. They didn’t think the student section would empty from the stands and pour onto the turf when it was all said and done. The Cougars, after all, were 10-point favorites, and rushing the field is rare practice when your team is expect to win, and win handily.
None of it was part of the blueprint, but 2-0 was. And WSU fans who paid attention in 2016 won’t take it for granted – they know good and well what the alternative to 2-0 can be.
There wasn’t much bravado from WSU in a 47-44 triple-overtime win Saturday night at Martin Stadium, and it probably cost the Cougars a chance to scale up the national rankings – they actually dropped one spot, from No. 20 to 21 – but here they sit, unbeaten through two games for the first time under sixth-year coach Mike Leach.
They’re getting the hard-nosed, early-season wins that always seemed to elude them – a symbol of the culture shift that’s happening between the walls of the football ops building at WSU.
“I can’t even put into words the hard work and dedication we put into this,” senior running back Jamal Morrow said. “How it’s all just forming. I can’t even put it into words. It’s crazy.”
“Crazy” is also the first term – and also the most appropriate term – that one might go to in order to describe what happened between 7:30 and 11:40 p.m. Saturday night in Pullman.
Luke Falk became Washington State’s all-time passer in the second quarter, then was benched, unbenched and injured all in the same football game. Falk didn’t return after absorbing a vicious hit from BSU’s Jabril Frazier, and backup Tyler Hilinski guided the offense the rest of the way.
Leach offered his most comprehensive version of an “injury report,” telling reporters the Cougars stuck with their No. 2 because he “had the hot hand” and it was in their best interest to remain “cautious” with Falk.
The starter was examined on the sideline, but Falk was up and throwing by the time the first overtime period began. At that point, though, the Cougars were already humming with Hilinski.
Hilinski finished 25 for 33 with 240 yards and three touchdowns – including the decisive TD pass to Morrow – and reaffirmed there wouldn’t be much of a dropoff, if any, with him in the game, as opposed to Falk.
Granted, the Cougars will say they already knew it. Now the fans have peace of mind, too.
“It wasn’t really a big change for us and for Tyler,” said wide receiver Renard Bell, who led the Cougars with 107 yards on seven catches. “He just came in and does what he does. He does what he does in practice and all those plays that he made, he does those during practice. Every play is a routine play and when he came in, he was going to lead us to victory and that’s what he did.”
WSU opens as a 16-point favorite against visiting Oregon State (1-2) in Saturday’s Pac-12 opener. The Beavers have been outscored 138-76 in three games this season and it seems unlikely that a 21-point deficit will reappear at Martin Stadium unless it’s one inflicted by the Cougars.
They’ll be expected to push around a lesser Nevada team the week after, but then things get more demanding. No. 4 USC comes to town for Week 5, WSU travels to Oregon in Week 6 and the Cougars won’t get out of the woods before facing No. 19 Stanford and No. 6 Washington.
At some point during that hellish stretch, the Cougars will presumably look up at the scoreboard and see themselves down a touchdown, or two, or three. Thanks to the heroics they pulled off Saturday, it won’t be as harrowing as it was before.
“We encountered adversity,” linebacker Frankie Luvu said, “and came back and stared it in the face.”