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John Blanchette: Cougars’ giddiness over 3-0 start tempered by injury to Oregon State’s Jake Luton

PULLMAN – The first pass covered a cool 14 yards, but then there was a bubble screen that went nowhere, a sack – by a team that had sacked nobody all season – and finally a medium-deep ball swatted away at the last minute.

This was Washington State’s start on Saturday afternoon, worse even than the Cougars’ start last Saturday. Which tells you a lot about how much gravitas to attach to “starts.”

In any case, you could make out – OK, maybe just imagine – a single voice among the 32,487 certified attendees at Martin Stadium timing the punchline: “Bring on Hilinski!”

Just for laughs, of course.

They are back at Martin Stadium, those laughs. A bright September afternoon instead of the usual TV-mandated eclipse and that No. 21 ranking and the giddy hangover of last week’s miracle – engineered by Tyler Hilinski, the backup quarterback, when the Cougars decided to “be cautious” after starter Luke Falk took some hard knocks – made certain the mood was light on Saturday. And six Falk touchdown passes and a blowout made it even lighter.

Until it very much wasn’t.

This is football’s dark gift.

By about a quarter to six in the afternoon, there was a cart on the field and a spinal board was being gently placed under Oregon State quarterback Jake Luton, who had been scrambling for extra yards – in a game that was long over and probably no longer required his presence, though somebody has to play quarterback. In the process, Luton made himself available to a wicked blast from WSU safety Jalen Thompson that wasn’t targeting – the original call overruled – but was devastating. And after the pointless booing as the video evidence was replayed, the gravity was properly absorbed. The breathless silence said as much, and the quiet had nothing to do with the stadium being half-abandoned.

As he was being driven away, Luton managed a gesture as if to signal all was OK, but we’ve seen those before and they’re a statement of will, not a guarantee. However, by the time the Beavers had trudged into their locker room 52-23 losers to a far better team, good news was being delivered to the players.

“I don’t know what it is but they told us he’s going to be all right,” said running back Ryan Nall.

“That’s all that matters,” said receiver Jordan Villamin.

That did little to mitigate coach Gary Andersen’s feelings at seeing it (“You’re unknowing, you feel helpless”) and Falk himself admitted to some there-but-for-the-grace thoughts as “I’ve been in similar situations.” The Cougars had already seen their defensive heart-and-soul, Peyton Pelluer, leave before halftime and never return, possibly concussed, though coach Mike Leach again dismissed inquiries – his right, certainly, though his standard accompanying lampoon needs to be retired.

Andersen was at least forthright about why Luton was still being subjected to punishment in a four-touchdown game.

“That’s where we are as a program,” he said. “Our kids can use every rep they can get.”

Maybe Wazzu gave him a whiff of the possibilities.

The Cougars were not flawless this day. Nall ran through them at nearly eight yards a crack. They turned downright hospitable on third down. And Falk didn’t hand the ball to a running back until the game was 20 minutes old – against a team heretofore incapable of stopping the run.

But then they did that thing they so often do. Having given the Beavers a smidgen of hope – a Nall burst that pulled them to within 28-16, and two sacks that left WSU third-and-22 – Falk found the wondrous Tavares Martin Jr. on a dig route over the middle that wound up not just going for 22 yards but 57 and the never-mind touchdown.

“If that’s not a great college quarterback,” Andersen said of the senior benched just a week ago, “I’ve never seen one in my life.”

And he was even more taken with Martin and Isaiah Johnson-Mack, the Cougars’ outside missiles, who had OSU corners Xavier Crawford and Kyle White talking to themselves on well-covered touchdown passes even before Martin’s clincher.

“I don’t know what to tell a (cornerback) in that scenario,” Andersen. “They made some tremendous catches on contested balls. As impressive as I’ve been around.”

Speaking of impressive, the Cougars are 3-0 for the first time since 2005 – though it’s unlikely this year’s first three victims will win the 22 games that year’s three did.

Still, the balloon popped at the end of 2016 has been reinflated, the Big Sky Jinx put to bed and the wild finish to beat Boise State suggests anything is possible – both the comeback and why it was necessary.

“It’s really fun,” Martin acknowledged, “but it’s fun because of the path the guys before paved for us. Right now, we’re just following in their footsteps. It’s up to us to keep it going in the right direction and keep it fun.”

Even through the haunting moments.