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

John Blanchette: Lets not get ahead of ourselves, Cougs still have a lot to learn before Apple Cup

PULLMAN – It’s been suggested we fast-forward this football runoff directly to the Apple Cup, given the early returns from Pac-12 precincts.

And it’s tempting.

After all, Washington State and Washington have turned the standings upside down, administering drubbings to former penthouse tenants Oregon and Stanford and leaving them in living circumstances something along the lines of a van down by the river.

Somehow, this has made the Huskies the flavor of the month and left Wazzu still on the outside of the Top 25 looking in, though obviously the Cougs have themselves to blame for starting the season like an ‘88 Toyota pickup on a minus-10 winter morning. Still, lack of poll affirmation can only increase the Cougars fan’s thirst for validation at UW’s expense.

And, yes, there are some modest challenges ahead for both teams. The Cougs are at Arizona State next week, though the Sun Devils were undressed by Colorado on Saturday. The Huskies are at Utah the week after, though the Utes may be the softest 6-1 in the country.

But we want what we want when we want it.

And what the football consumer in these parts wants is the best show – now. Get these teams together while they’re both hot, both relatively whole and both capable of providing a needed distraction to the meltdown of America ongoing around us.

(Only the current national discourse could cast Apple Cup trash talk as elegant and decorous.)

But look at what we’d miss.

On Saturday night, the Cougars welcomed to Martin Stadium the UCLA Bruins, looking very much like road kill before the fact. The weather was frightful, the Bruins were without their over-heralded starting quarterback and still very much with a running game that looked like, well, early Mike Leach.

Which, of course, meant the Cougs had to hang on like desperados for a 27-21 victory.

Not until Dylan Hanser stripped the ball from UCLA’s Jordan Lasley and Robert Taylor covered it – and not until the replay monitor overturned the call on field that Lasley was down – were the Cougs able to put this one in the win column.

Even at that, they still had to kill another two and a half minutes, and as we know from our homework over the years that’s not a particularly compelling part of the Cougars resume.

Nonetheless, here are the Cougs, winners of four in a row, and possibly in better shape at this point than most imagined even before the season’s first kickoff.

If you were among those who concluded after the wipeouts of the Ducks and Cardinal that only wipeouts would be forthcoming, well, there still might be some. No point skipping those – it’s not like those kinds of seasons are routine in Pullman.

And if there are more bizarre nail-biters a la the UCLA affair, well, so much the better. Worth the price of admission, if not the pneumonia.

Yes, it made for a long night – the reviews, the penalties (an unofficial record for “snap infractions” was set), the reviews. Did we mention the reviews? This thing lasted so long, Luke Falk was on the phone to upstairs, not to get the eye-in-the-sky read on the UCLA defense but to buy a reverse mortgage from Tom Selleck.

In some respects, it might well have been Falk’s longest night. Operating in weather that went from steady rain to drizzle to break to monsoon, the Cougars quarterback started out just 4 of 15 with an unsightly interception. And he never did throw a touchdown, a first in the Falk era.

So no wonder he was especially demonstrative after taking a knee to kill the final seconds, rising and slamming the ball into his left palm – knowing it’s unlikely he’ll have a less satisfying game this season with his team still walking off winners.

On the other hand, it’s unlikely anyone felt so validated in a loss than UCLA quarterback Mike Fafaul, who threw for 258 yards and three touchdowns. Before Josh Rosen went down last week against ASU, Fafaul – a redshirt senior who came to UCLA as a walk-on – had thrown all of seven collegiate passes, all completions.

His best work came as the Bruins rallied from a 24-7 deficit in the final quarter – and he had them on the move again until Lasley coughed up the football.

The Cougs will wonder what happened to the killer instinct that was so well realized in the Oregon and Stanford conquests, and the fan base can wonder what happened to the running game that had been flexing its muscle – especially in the rain. Some of that seemed dictated by the UCLA defense – and some of it seemed like stubbornness.

In the meantime, it’s obvious that whatever anticipation continues to build for the Friday showdown after Thanksgiving, there are still lessons to be learned for the Cougs along the way.

It’s tempting to forget that, though.