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Thursday, October 17, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Confidence evident at WSU, but Cougs are far from finished

Washington State's Luke Falk, left, and Gabe Marks figure to light up the scoreboard at Martin Stadium this season. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State's Luke Falk, left, and Gabe Marks figure to light up the scoreboard at Martin Stadium this season. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Don’t let anybody tell you that people aren’t paying attention to Washington State football. The evidence is overwhelming.

Season ticket sales are up by 2,000 from a comparable point last season, and will likely break the school record, which is believed to be just under 14,000.

The Cougars sold out just two games last season, but have already sold out the Oct. 1 game against Oregon, and there are scarcely any tickets remaining for the team’s season-opener against Eastern Washington or the Apple Cup.

Matt Zollinger, the assistant athletic director in charge of ticket sales and service, is even more optimistic.

“I expect all our games to continue trending in the right direction with the goal of selling out all seven games this season,” Zollinger said.

The boundaries of increased expectations of the Cougars this year extend well outside the fan base. The Cougars received votes in the Associated Press Top-25 preseason poll for the first time since 2002, with a few writers ranking WSU in the teens.

These writers see a team that won nine games last season, improving as the year went on. A program that fired its defensive coordinator the previous offseason, lost to FCS Portland State in the opener, struggled against weak opponents Rutgers and Wyoming, but later in the year was beating tough, talented teams on the road.

The Cougars return an All-Conference quarterback and wide receiver in Luke Falk and Gabe Marks, talented and experienced offensive linemen and running backs, and the major players from a defense that shut down Miami in the team’s 2015 Sun Bowl win.

And the hype is building. On June 15, the MGM Grand sports book in Las Vegas gave the Cougars 150-to-1 odds of winning the 2017 college football playoff. As of Aug. 22, WSU is now given 60-to-1 odds.

But what has hype ever done for anybody? Sure, it will be helpful to have packed crowds when the Cougars are playing those seven homes games, and all those filled seats (and subsequent donations) should make it easier for the Cougars to someday buy that indoor practice facility they’ve been pining for.

But one gets the impression that defensive coordinator Alex Grinch could do without all the hullaballoo around the program, lest his players think they’ve accomplished something.

“From a coaching standpoint, we’re trying to break their confidence as much as anything else,” Grinch said. “We don’t need to be confident two weeks before a game; we don’t need to be confident (against Eastern Washington). Everything we do is to make sure these guys understand the standard where we play defense around here, and quite honestly they have not reached that standard.”

What the Cougars may have, coming off the most successful season of the Mike Leach era, is a certain certitude that his way works, that the process will be productive, that all the long hours are worth it.

They know the drills they run in the summer equip them with what they need to complete a game-winning drive in the Rose Bowl, that Grinch’s defense is undoubtedly an upgrade over what they were doing before.

“We know what we have, we know we have the ability to be a really good team,” Henry said. “I think that gives you the extra get-up in the morning when you’re feeling sorry for yourself on Friday, and all your friends are back home and you’re here.”

There are new challenges for the Cougars. WSU will have to avoid the pitfalls that come with recognition. Increased attention does not just mean increased scrutiny, it also brings the siren-like allure of unearned praise, and if the Cougars want to be distracted by reading about how great they are, there will be no shortage of material.

Sports Illustrated has already profiled Falk, and the author posits that NFL riches after the season are a certainty. ESPN will televise WSU’s Week 2 trip to Boise State, and as long as the wins keep coming the TV cameras will follow.

But a team that is sure of itself because it is sure of its process can avoid such distractions by simply sticking with what works. The Cougars no longer have to rely on belief in alone, as they had to last season when compiling that great record despite going 3-9 the year before.

“I think last year at this time it was clouded a little more with optimism than true confidence,” Leach said. “True confidence is where after you take a shot or something, you’re still confident. So we’ll find out but I do feel like we’re a little ahead of that.”

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