PULLMAN – Bill Doba grew a bit icy a few days ago when someone reminded him that the national know-it-all sports ‘zine rated Washington State’s football schedule softer than grandpa’s morning eggs.
Third-easiest nationally, to be precise. Some hard science behind it, too, no doubt.
“Tell them to come play it then,” the coach of the Cougars sniffed.
Ah, yes. The best defense is a good double-dog dare, especially one that has no hope of sanction.
Let’s call this the first second-guessable error in the game plan for Thursday night’s 88th football meeting of Wazzu and urchin neighbor Idaho, which played out to a rather lukewarm 38-26 victory for the Cougars in front of 28,339 thrill-seekers, minus the usual boozers who bailed at halftime.
Football teams tend to regard snipes at schedule strength as an assault on their collective manhood, as if they’re somehow responsible for an opponent’s shortcomings as well as correcting their own. Yes, the Cougars lined up Idaho, Nevada and Grambling State as a preamble to the Pacific-10 Conference season. No, that isn’t daunting in the same way that, say, Georgia, Louisville and Texas would be – or for that matter, either the cons or the guards from “The Longest Yard.”
To which Doba could have said, “That is sooooo not my problem.”
Or he could have gone on all Spurrier on the subject.
“What are we, 27-point favorites?” he might have asked. “Well, why not 127?”
Since this is what every self-styled expert not gussied up in black and gold expected anyway, could there have been any harm in letting the Cougars in on the presumption? Possibly it would have invested them with a sense of purpose they seemed to lack all evening after a couple of early breaks went their way.
“We looked a little lethargic,” Doba admitted, “after we got the 14-0 lead.”
We’re talking about Jerome Harrison’s pretty 80-yard dash for a touchdown on the game’s first play from scrimmage, and the Idaho fumble on the subsequent kickoff that led to another Harrison score.
See, if the coach keeps harping on how you can’t take these guys lightly and then you’re 14 points to the good before 70 seconds have elapsed, the natural inclination is to think, “Whatever.” Whereas if he’s been goosing you to pour it on, you’re going to pour it on, right?
Hey, it’s just a theory.
Another theory is that it’s not Doba but Nick Holt who should be a little chapped about the diss of Wazzu’s schedule.
In just year two of his tour as head coach at Idaho, Holt has imbued the Vandals with a good deal more siccum than they’ve shown all decade. They rallied swiftly after their early gaffes and kept plugging even when the Cougars finally ended any relevant debate early in the fourth quarter. Holt didn’t double-clutch when it was clear the offense wasn’t responding to starting quarterback Michael Harrington’s whip and found the spark the Vandals needed in backup Steve Wichman.
“We have two quarterbacks that I think can help us win,” said Holt, massaging a question on a possible lineup change, “and we will go from there.”
And the coaching staff doesn’t lack for enthusiasm. When Wichman flipped a little 5-yard pass to Daniel Smith – who gave the Cougars fits all night – and pulled the Vandals within five, 24-19, late in the third quarter, quarterbacks coach Jonathan Smith was far enough on the field to make himself a fifth receiver in the route.
“They’ve made tremendous progress,” Doba said. “They’re a bigger, stronger, faster looking football team. We might have let up a little bit, but when the crunch was on I thought they really battled. Our defense saved us in the first half.”
Now then, how this will translate in Idaho’s debut in the Western Athletic Conference remains to be seen; college football teams do not live by give-a-damn alone.
Good thing for the Cougs this night.
Washington State has all manner of big-play firepower, from the remarkable Harrison – whose lack of opportunity in these early games a year ago still mystifies – to receivers Jason Hill and Michael Bumpus to 3-D linebackers Will Derting, Scott Davis and Steve Dildine.
If the chorus needs some seasoning, the soloists surely can carry the show.
But that wasn’t always the case Thursday night. Harrison, with not enough push from the fellows in front, was an unspectacular 3.7-yard-a-carry back after his big sprint. Hill gathered in a pair of touchdown passes, but dropped as many balls as he caught – and only got the opportunity to catch his second scoring pass after his pass interference penalty wiped out Jesse Taylor’s on the previous play. Bumpus had some electric moments, but also gave it the old Adrian Beltre on a one-hop punt he tried to snag at midfield, though the fumble didn’t amount to anything.
And quarterback Alex Brink – who won the starting job, Doba reported, by making fewer mistakes in his August audition than incumbent Josh Swogger – made a couple of big ones in the second quarter that could have been more damaging if the Vandals had been able to convert them into touchdowns instead of short field goals.
Of course, it was Brink who put two balls on the money to Hill – one on a pretty 67-yard touchdown that victimized Idaho’s Reggie Jones – and gave the Vandals a final push down the hill.
Besides, there were plenty of missteps to go around – and that’s hardly surprising. Every season has to have a first game. And so the Cougars fell back on a familiar formula.
“We’re a bigger, stronger team,” said Doba, “and I think we wore them down in the late third and fourth quarters.”
And that’s going to be fine – but only as long as the only thing on the menu is sunny side up.
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