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Blanchette: Nothing inadvertent about Cougs’ toughness

PULLMAN – Everyone had settled in for an afternoon of the Washington State Cougars trying to unknot the laces of the left and right shoes they’d apparently tied together when came this announcement from referee Mark Duddy:

“Inadvertently,” he told the Dad’s Day crowd at Martin Stadium, “we need to replay fourth down.”

Inadvertently.

Hey, that’s progress in the Pac-12. It could have been intentionally.

Inadvertently, those were the magic words for the Cougars.

Inadvertently, Arizona State gave up a touchdown on the mulligan and Saturday would never quite be the same.

Inadvertently, the Cougars found yet another receiving star in freshman Kyle Sweet. Inadvertently, the officials got around to playing the fourth quarter after an Olympiad-long delay. Inadvertently, Wazzu found it could get along without alpha dog tackle Joe Dahl who, of course, isn’t injured (now that would be inadvertent).

And after a 38-24 majority decision over the Sun Devils, the Cougars are bowl eligible for a second time under coach Mike Leach.

Nothing inadvertent about that, except perhaps the route they took.

One final time, it must be pointed out that the Cougars started the season in the most un-bowl-bound way possible, a steaming pile of fail in the form of a loss to Portland State. Wazzu had not lost to a Big Sky school in 50 years.

Not only did the Cougars not let that moment define their season, they haven’t let any moment define their season. Not the near misses against Cal and Stanford, nor the comebacks and closeouts that have put them in this position.

“We have a lot of room to get better,” insisted Gunnar Eklund, who slid over to fill Dahl’s tackle spot. “As you can see, when we’re not doing well, we can be really bad. And when we’re doing good, we can be great.

“You see sometimes we have a chance to be the best team in the country.”

Easy, big fella. Maybe a spot in the Top 25 should come first.

Yet even that seemed like a long shot viewed through the prism of the game’s first 10 minutes, when ASU gashed through the Cougar defense for two way-easy touchdowns and WSU quarterback Luke Falk threw a wince-worthy interception.

“Coach Leach calls them ‘slipsies,’” Falk confided, “but it was a bad read, too.”

But it was here the Cougar defense decided it liked itself better as the unit that showed up a week ago against Stanford. Wazzu stuffed the Sun Devils when coach Todd Graham got all virile and tried to run it on fourth-and-goal from the 3 – and other than a fake punt in the third quarter, the visitors never again got much of anything done.

Anything change for the Cougs, other than simply tackling better?

“Not really,” Leach shrugged. “The first half, we stole a bunch of their signals and those helped us a bunch in the second half.”

Bet he’s been rehearsing that line all week.

The Great Signal Stealing Soap Opera – Graham’s Pac-12 brethren think he’s the most determined code cracker since Alan Turing – fizzled into nothingness Saturday. The Cougs didn’t erect screens to mask play calls as Oregon did a week ago, nor did Leach employ the Coug Guys and Gals to perform flag semaphore. Running back Jamal Morrow mentioned that WSU renamed a few plays, but that was all.

Besides, once again it was the officiating crew with the call of the day. On fourth-and-5 from the ASU 11 and down 14-3, Falk found Gabe Marks along the right sideline – short of the first down. But before he could try and get the necessary yardage, line judge Rich Troyer blew his whistle prematurely.

“I was like, ‘Dude, what?’” said Marks.

By rule, according to Duddy, the offense gets its choice of the yardage or a do-over. Good break.

“Based on this year,” Leach scoffed, “if there’s an evaluation of breaks, I’m looking forward to all of them I’m owed.”

But if there has been an imbalance, perhaps he should be grateful. Dealing with and dismissing those bad breaks has helped make Wazzu a tough hombre – and a tougher out. Think about it: more highly regarded teams have spilled dinner down their shirts. Arizona has lost games by 26, 38 and 46 points. Cal, the flavor of the month weeks ago, lost three in a row. Oregon? Hey, the Ducks still have all those swell uniform combinations. ASU’s now lost three straight and Graham confessed that, “We’ve done a very poor job” developing synergy and rhythm.

The Cougs? They clawed back and then closed out ASU in a way they hadn’t against a legit opponent. And now they’re bowl eligible and in no mind to stop.

“We have higher aspirations,” insisted Falk.

They aren’t alone. As time expired Saturday and with this benchmark to celebrate, the students didn’t storm the field.

Of course, that could have been inadvertent.

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