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John Blanchette: Even with two straight wins, still tough to tell where these Cougs stand

| By John Blanchette

PULLMAN – A game into the Washington State season, the fixes offered up by a restless public ranged from firing the coach to joining the Big Sky Conference – wait, too ambitious – to dropping football altogether.

A week later? Bowl dates were being parsed and pennies socked away for holiday flights on the basis of one nervy touchdown drive.

You know, the usual measured, reasoned responses.

Now the Cougars find themselves with a recess before they plunge into Pac-12 play, and probably the best that can be said is that we suspect what we’ve suspected about them all along, but know little more.

Hey, there’s no sense dropping any plot spoilers before October, right?

At least the Cougars don’t have to spend two weeks saddled with the bitter taste of failure after their 31-14 victory over Wyoming on Saturday, which is more than can be said for the gamblers who took them against the spread.

Someday, the Cougs will once again share the joy of an unequivocal, hammer-down, no yeah-buts performance with their Martin Stadium church-goers – who this week numbered 31,105, many staying beyond halftime for change, though possibly just to dry out from their last visit here.

Someday.

This was the sort of thing Wazzu’s downy pre-Pac schedule was supposed to produce. This was the sort of thing that was supposed to induce hope that the fourth year of the Mike Leach era would look more like the fourth year of the Mike Price or Jim Walden eras, and not so much like the fourth year of, well, you know.

Instead, the Cougars found themselves clinging to a one-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter over a team many had suggested was the worst in the Football Bowl Subdivision – and were able to take a breath only because of two turnovers forced by a revived and revved-up defense.

But that’s something, right? A good sign? A life ring? Something?

Sure.

Maybe for this reason: In both the season-opening embarrassment against Portland State and the face-saving follow-up at Rutgers, the Cougs were a second-half mess on defense. Big Sky High ran over them for 172 yards after halftime, Rutgers 135. In other words, somebody figured something out over juice boxes and orange slices, and it wasn’t Wazzu.

Now here came the Cowboys, who even in a blowout loss at home last week to Eastern Somebody managed to rush for 430 yards – or 48 fewer than the Cougars had managed in all of 2014. And much of the first half Saturday was gash-and-dash – the Pokes had consecutive runs of 17, 11 and 16 yards to open the drive that produced their final go-ahead touchdown.

And after halftime? No gash. No dash.

Before the Cowboys went on a desperation drive with the game decided, they’d managed all of 96 yards in the second half, and only a token amount on the ground. This by a team, as linebacker Jeremiah Allison noted, that “had their mind set on what they were going to do.”

Three shutout quarters after spotting Wyoming 14 points was a pretty staunch effort. It was the “before” part that was troubling.

“They came out the first half and wanted it more than we did,” explained linebacker Peyton Pelluer, whose body of work suggested otherwise. “We played down to their level and didn’t respect them.”

Well, the Cowboys hadn’t earned much of it, truth be told. Before the loss last week was their own humiliation to another Sky soldier, North Dakota – and no, not the good one. But they’re in good company. The Mountain West is now 2-21 this season against FBS competition.

Hell, even the FCS is doing better than that.

And therein lies the problem with trying to draw any meaningful hope from this exercise, or really anything that’s happened so far. The Cougs themselves wrote the PSU disaster off as an aberration, Rutgers is a program in disarray and Wyoming is possibly the worst of the lot.

Oh, and in the latest returns, the Cougar offense was just about as ineffectual as it could be – from indifferent line play to uninspiring quarterbacking to a lack of red-zone imagination. One exception: backup running back Keith Harrington, a speedy, determined workhorse on WSU’s go-ahead TD drive, especially the 36-yard burst that capped it – the Cougs’ longest TD run of the Leach era.

“He’s developing into a real weapon,” Leach allowed, “as far as making people miss.”

As for the rest of it, Leach fell back on his trademark ethereal vagueness, offering something about “a certain amount of indecisiveness exists – guys wanting plays to come to them, sorting out whether the other guy is going to make the play or them. We have to have a little more reckless abandon.”

Uh, OK.

But if the Cougars have mastered the art of playing down to the level of the company they opted to keep this month, they’d better hope there’s a reverse gear. Because the level gets better right now.