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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Blanchette: WSU scrimmage a bit inconclusive

One of the simultaneously high and low moments of Washington State football history occurred at Albi Stadium some 45 years ago in the rubble of a blowout loss to Stanford. Eric Cross was steaming toward the end zone and another touchdown when a 27-year-old Vietnam vet and Wazzu business major named Terry Smith hurtled over the wall near the south end zone, squared up and lowered his right shoulder into the Stanford running back at the 1-yard line. Well, the Cougs were back at Albi on Saturday, and the spirit lives on. Late in the annual Crimson and Gray Game with the third-teamers getting in their licks, freshman linebacker Greg Hoyd III picked off a pass and, in some confusion over whether a whistle had blown, continued toward the north end zone in a slow, showy canter. At which point Gray team receiver Gabe Marks, his day over and his helmet off, burst from the sideline in playful – and yet purposeful – pursuit. Either the defensive mindset at Wazzu really has turned the corner, or the offense has decided to take things into its own hands. Only kidding. So that Cougar makeover: How’s it looking? Good question. Too bad the scrimmage didn’t reveal anything particularly conclusive. In all the anticipation of exploding scoreboards and high times that attended Mike Leach’s arrival as head coach four years ago, little thought seemed to be invested that some defensive stoppage would still be required for it all to work. And precious little stoppage has occurred. So in the wake of last year’s 3-9 slog and the boos that echoed from it, Leach axed two defensive staffers and hired Alex Grinch to coordinate the defense – though perhaps “manufacture” some would be more accurate. Or just “more” – more takeaways, more getting off the field on third down, more bowing up. There’s a new look – nickel is the new base – and some new faces and, purportedly, a new level of aggression. And the old emotional bruises from being blame magnets? “You don’t know,” admitted Grinch, fresh from three years coaching safeties at Missouri. “Coming in new, I don’t have a reference point, so some of those things you just make assumptions about. “One thing I will say that became fairly obvious is that these guys want to be good. It’s not from lack of want-to. And we talk every day about being positive with them, finding the silver lining – while by the same token, there are certain things we can’t compromise on.” Leach, Grinch and a small sample of Cougars insist there’s been progress, without question. Saturday’s returns, well – just remember that last spring at Albi, the Cougars’ secondary was making life hard on the quarterbacks with five picks. Come real time – 12 regular-season games – the deebs managed exactly one interception. Still, it can’t be denied that defensive end Destiny Vaeao was positively sacktastic, and linemates Darryl Paulo and Daniel Ekuale were similarly active. Kyle Newsom’s pop of Keith Harrington elicited the day’s loudest reaction from a gathering announced as 6,217. Charleston White made a nice recovery to take a ball away from Marks, even as he called it “kind of a freak play.” On the other hand, receiver Dom Williams was virtually radioactive, and there are more than a few Dom Williamses in the Pac-12. But the pressure did seem to be amped up a bit, and the guess is there will be more attack in the Cougs when they line up against someone else. There simply must be. But there also has to be, as Grinch noted, “something to lean on.” A commitment to technique, and especially to effort. “That’s going to make up for things when maybe the technique breaks down or the Xs and Os aren’t right,” Grinch said. “We try to give these guys things to hang their hat on – third downs are key, takeaways equal victory, mindset in the red zone. Something they can draw confidence from.” Simply, the Cougs have to turn over their opponents once in a while. Their inability to do so last year made a few winnable games – in the first half of the season anyway – impossible. “Our mindset has to be that our whole purpose on the field is to get that ball back to the offense,” Grinch said, “and every single down of football provides you with that opportunity.” Mindset in the spring is rarely an issue. Even a senior like rush linebacker Ivan McLennan, who had to adjust to both a new DC and a new position coach in the turnover, is unequivocal about endorsing change – and embracing the possibilities. “I don’t like doing predictions,” he said, “but if we stay on this path and keep getting better, we could make some noise this year.” If they don’t, you can figure the customers will.
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