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John Blanchette: In unpredictable Pac-12, Washington State continues to be the cream of the crop

UPDATED: Sat., Oct. 27, 2018, 11:12 p.m.

STANFORD, Calif. – The market corrections in college football are a thrill ride to rival Kingda Ka, or even the games themselves.

But, no, the Washington State Cougars are not going to jump 11 spots in the polls this week.

Wouldn’t be the worst idea, though.

And surely no more indefensible than the consensus presumptions of the preseason.

Remember those? There were a lot of 6-6s projected, or maybe five wins and you could even find a 3-9 prediction or two out there, though that seemed the fuzziest of math when you looked at Wazzu’s nonconference schedule. In any event, the best the Cougs were supposed to aspire to was a leaky raft and a roll of duct tape, and maybe a reward in one of those postseason games that sheds one sponsor’s name for another every year.

And now look.

Another ballsy fourth-quarter pass on Saturday, another signature win – this one 41-38 over 24th-ranked Stanford, on the Cardinal’s home ground where the atmosphere wasn’t ionized by spectacle and delirium as it was a week ago.

The Cougs – 7-1 and the toast of the Pac-12. Hell, not just the toast. The face-saver.

And remember, only the Woodie Dixon Bowl likely separates them from being undefeated.

Around them? Nothing but carnage. Just up the road in Berkeley, muddling Cal takes down the underachieving kinda guys of Washington. At last, the end of the unfairly-maligned-Jake-Browning narrative, though surely he gets to share the brickbats with his coaches.

What else? Hapless Oregon State gets happy with an impossible comeback at Colorado. Arizona State humbles USC. Oregon, exposed a week ago in Pullman, laid bare at Arizona.

You want market corrections? Only mercy will sustain more than Wazzu and Utah as Pac-12 representatives in the Top 25 come Sunday.

Think not? Already this season, eight teams have taken double-digit hits in the polls after embarrassing losses.

Then again, embarrassment is in the eye of the beholder. WSU coach Mike Leach himself made the case last week that the Pac-12’s worst would eviscerate the low-enders of the SEC, ACC, Big Ten and Big 12 – and if it triggered a nation’s roll of the eyes, either Saturday’s results bolstered his point or furthered the snark that the Pac doesn’t have a top end.

Except the Cougs, of course. They’re top end.

Someone’s going to have to prove otherwise.

The Cardinal tried – taking a two-touchdown lead at halftime, punishing Wazzu with the pass, tying the score with 85 seconds to go. It wasn’t enough.

Gardner Minshew, America’s new quarterback sweetheart, completed 19 straight passes in the second half. Dez Patmon monstered Stanford’s JJ Arcega-Whiteside to a draw of big-man receivers. Jamire Calvin made the defining catch that Travell Harris did a week ago and Easop Winston made a month ago.

“They flat-out earned it,” Stanford coach David Shaw said.

“We had guys in coverage. We had guys there. Quarterback made the throws. Guys made the catch. Guys made some guys miss. It wasn’t just (our) guys diving on the ground. We had the lead and we just couldn’t extend it and we couldn’t keep it.”

It was back in August, along about the time the Cougs were picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12 North, when Leach cautioned that his team was better than people believed.

What made him think so?

“Well, the quick, simple answer is, I always think that,” he said. “On Sunday, I’m not sure we can beat Pullman Junior High. On Thursday, I think we can beat an all-star team of the Eagles and Patriots. This is not a business for rational people.

“And that’s not why anybody comes to the games – to see what’s supposed to happen. They want to be surprised. And it’s an opportunity for players to elevate and do something no one thought they could do and maybe didn’t know they could do themselves. But that starts with expectations and generating them for the whole group.”

There were other things, though. He’d Hail Mary’d himself a quarterback – Minshew – after the devastating suicide of Tyler Hilinski, the presumptive starter. Youngsters ratcheted up the battles for other open jobs. Through tragedy off the field and competition on, the Cougs forged bonds that transcended positions and sides of the ball.

“Maybe the most coachable team I’ve ever had,” Leach allowed.

If it was almost hilarious to see the Cougs become an overnight sensation last week, the attention will only grow. Unlikely as they are to figure in the College Football Playoff picture, they’re the only Pac-12 team that can.

“It’s just clutter,” Leach said. “Everybody thought we were going to get our head kicked in nearly every game. That didn’t do us any benefit to pay any attention to that, so it doesn’t do any benefit to pay attention to the other.”

So it’s on with the business of making market corrections – in everybody’s notions of what they should be. And maybe their own.


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