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Blanchette: Just look at the Cougars now, baby

Joyous Washington State fans surround Cougars quarterback Connor Halliday after the win. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Joyous Washington State fans surround Cougars quarterback Connor Halliday after the win. (Tyler Tjomsland)

PULLMAN – As at every other campus Neverland, there’s an odd cocktail of ironic whimsy, chutzpah and why-the-hell-not good cheer that often carries the day at Washington State.

On Saturday afternoon, it was distilled into one small handmade sign being toted through the civilian Cougs whose storming of the field was more trickle than tsunami, though undeniably sincere.

“Bring on Bama,” it read.

Any mild sarcasm that may have peppered the sentiment made it the perfect Cougar hell-yeah.

At 6-5 and mathematically eligible for a bowl game for the first time in seven years, the Cougars felt like world-beaters for a day. And given the depths of where they’ve been in recent times – the pratfalls, minidramas, drubbings, upheavals and other assorted travails – well they should.

“It’s crazy,” said cornerback Nolan Washington, “to think of what we’ve been through and still being able to say, ‘Look at us now.’ ”

Look at them now.

OK, their big moment played out in front of a sadly intimate turnout of 23,112 – many students choosing Thanksgiving break over the chance at winning a drawing for a big-screen TV, while the MIAs in the other grandstands possibly presumed kickoff was 7:30 p.m. as usual. Or else the thrill of a bowl chase no longer heats the blood.

And, yes, the clinching win was an odd 49-37 shootout over Utah, one of the Pac-12’s expansion bottom-feeders playing with a walk-on backup quarterback who sent more aerials in the direction of the seats than a T-shirt cannon – to say nothing of throwing two pick-6s that effectively decided the game.

In any case, who cares?

This is one of those times when the end result completely trumps any weighing of the bona fides of this win or that victim.

This is, as coach Mike Leach has always insisted to his players and anyone else, about the Cougs – not about who they play or relative resources or any of those yeah-buts of chance, likelihood and outcome. Just the Cougs.

Look at them now.

Not that they’re too giddy. There are now nine bowl eligible teams in the Pac-12, seven of them with more wins that Wazzu. The league has seven bowl tie-ups, and there will be no extra representative in the BCS quartet, so that means two schools will have to find shelter in games that have affiliated with conferences that can’t fulfill their commitments – and if they can’t, they’ll be shut out.

“Seven (wins) will guarantee it, six only gives you a chance,” agreed quarterback Connor Halliday.

“It would be terrible to put in all that work, build this program from where it was on up and then leave it up to old guys making decisions.”

Which adds some extra juice to Friday’s Apple Cup in Seattle, always a good thing.

Still, the Cougars could not hide their interim satisfaction, and shouldn’t have to.

Specific to the game, there was the achievement of sending Halliday back to throw 62 passes and keeping him upright every time against a team that leads the nation in sacks.

Specific to the season, there’s the weathering of that abominable October swoon when they gave up 169 points in three games. Could have been their Bermuda Triangle.

But look at them now.

Most specifically, there’s the sense that they’ve poked their heads out of the 10-year trench of Not Mattering and seen the possibilities.

“I don’t want to get teary-eyed, but there were hard, hard times,” said Washington, one of 17 fourth- or fifth-year survivors in the program. “I remember guys telling me, ‘I don’t know, No’. I don’t know if it’s going to happen.’ But I think that shows the perseverance of the guys who have made it, who came here to do something and have seen it happen.”

The sea change of Leach’s arrival is an obvious catalyst, but in Washington’s eyes, that’s only part of the story.

“The previous staff, honestly, I love those guys,” he said. “They gave me an opportunity and I’m so thankful for it, and they taught me a lot – and a lot of what they taught us helped us with this new staff.

“But coach Leach has a different vibe about him. He just doesn’t care who we’re playing, who they’ve got, what superstars. It’s just, ‘Here’s who we are, and we’re going to win.’ ”

Explained safety Deone Bucanannon, “If a coaching staff has faith in us, why not have faith in ourselves?”

And now there’s more than faith. There is, in all likelihood, a bowl with their name on it, even if it’s a named for delivery pizza and the Cougs will have to bring their heavy coats.

“When people look back and ask, ‘When did they start winning again? When did they start going back to bowls?’ – they’ll see it was this team,” Washington said. “No matter what happens, we’re the guys who started it.”

Maybe it is the start of something. Look at them now!

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