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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

John Blanchette: Cougars show talent gap with Oregon has been reversed

PULLMAN – Surely it will be some consolation to the University of Oregon to keep winning all those track meets they love so much.

And maybe some Saturday the Ducks will make football at their school relevant again.

But not yesterday Saturday.

Life is different in the Pac-12 these days. Colorado’s good. Washington is elite. Oregon’s band is as annoying as USC’s.

And Washington State you know about – from the pits to the penthouse in a month now. Though, really, that isn’t all so different, if your memory can reach back a year.

But Ducks football is as ordinary as the uniforms they wore Saturday night at Martin Stadium, and that is something new. As is a three-game losing streak – their first since 2006.

The Cougs can take some comfort in being a big part of this great equalizing. Last year, it was the one-touchdown victory they pulled out in Eugene – though of course Utah had stoned the Ducks silly two weeks before that, and that Oregon was playing without its poached-from-the-Big-Sky quarterback.

The first one. The good one.

No asterisks attached this time. The Cougars survived a couple of hiccups in the third quarter Saturday night and blew past Oregon 51-33 in a game that wasn’t actually that close, and in which Wazzu was a physical equal, or better, at more positions than not – and it’s been a spell since that’s been said.

Yes, yes – these Cougs also lost to Eastern Washington. That can’t be explained, other than to say that, predictably, they’ve become much better in four weeks.

And the Ducks have become Idaho.

No, really.

Two weeks ago, in the Battle of the Palouse the Vandals opted to hunker back in a soft shell and give WSU all the space it wanted to exercise the running game coach Mike Leach supposedly disdains. The Cougars’ backs ran wild for 228 yards in a 56-6 vivisection.

And the Ducks? Well, they spent lots of downs rushing three men and sometimes just two and dropping everyone else into coverage – apparently because it worked so well for the Vandals. So this time the Cougars ran for 280, and Jamal Morrow, Gerard Wicks and James Williams each scored two touchdowns.

That was some fine film work the Ducks did this week.

Poison preference is, of course, multiple choice in dealing with the Cougar offense, and Leach added some funky formation shifts that probably forced Oregon to think twice on a lot of snaps. But you also got the feeling that Wazzu could have served up nothing but vanilla and still scored 51.

The running backs were swift and elusive. Luke Falk was crisp with his throws, and even more so with his reads.

“Almost every play they call is a pass and they check to a run,” said Ducks coach Mark Helfrich. “He did a great job of that. That balance was difficult for us to stop.”

The issue this night was as much relative talent level in the program. Yes, the Ducks have dealt with some debilitating injures, but as Helfrich pointed out, “Everybody in America has something that’s less than ideal.”

But it’s hard to explain how a program that had it rolling as strong as the Ducks did for a decade can wind up with four redshirt freshmen starting along the offensive line, or for the second year in a row tunneled into the FCS ranks to find a quarterback just a couple years after having a Heisman Trophy winner at that position.

“Stars don’t really matter,” Wicks said. “There’s more two-stars in the NFL than five-stars. It felt good beating up on Oregon like that.”

OK, the Ducks were never going to be dominant forever, no matter what the delusionals believe.

The Cougs, meanwhile, were never going to be as rudderless as they looked in their first two outings, and other than two red-zone flubs and two long plays, including a 100-yard kickoff return (shades of Cougar special teams 2014), they didn’t do much wrong.

Again, the Cougars have been building toward moments like this, and their success last year made it no great surprise. And Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, for one, appreciates their contribution to the party.

“As a commissioner, you like to see as many teams as possible be competitive,” he said.

“By the same token, given the way college football is laid out with the playoff, on my wish list having a national champion is a big deal for our conference.”

Oh, that. Yes, the Pac-12 hasn’t carted off that hardware since 2004.

“Until we ascend to the top of the pyramid again and have a team holding that national championship trophy, we’re still not getting the respect and attention our conference deserves,” Scott said.

The Pac-12 didn’t necessarily get any closer to that Saturday night. But the change is appealing, too.