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Jim Meehan: Preliminaries over, time to see how Washington State stacks up

PULLMAN – The Pac-12 is experimenting with a 15-minute halftime break for certain nonconference contests on the Pac-12 Networks to trim the overall length of games.

Games like Washington State-Nevada on Saturday. There probably wouldn’t have been many objections from the 30,317 at Martin Stadium if the conference had passed a one-time provision for a 15-minute, running-clock second half.

The mismatch was apparent from the opening seconds when WSU called several running plays for nice gains to the left side behind tackle Andre Dillard and All-American guard Cody O’Connell right at Malik Reed, Nevada’s best defensive lineman.

Nevada went three-and-out on its first three series with Cougars defensive tackle Hercules Mata’afa living in the backfield. Meanwhile, WSU scored on five straight possessions, led 35-0 at half and coasted to a 45-7 victory.

Thankfully, the prelims are over, though USC nearly didn’t get the memo. The Trojans needed a huge fourth quarter for a 30-20 road win over Cal.

Now it’s WSU (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12) and visiting USC (4-0, 2-0) in a Friday night showdown.

Four games into the season, Cougar fans can probably be found in two camps.

Camp No. 1: “This is the year.” The year WSU returns to the top 10, wins 10 games for the first time since the double-digit run from 2001-03, takes down Washington and reaches the Pac-12 title game.

Camp No. 2: “Looks like another 8-5, 9-4.” Those were WSU’s records the last two seasons with the Cougars bowling in San Diego and El Paso. The points and passing yards will stack up like video-game numbers, but can the Cougars beat the big boys (USC, UW) and the semi-big boys (at Oregon on Oct. 7, at Utah on Nov. 11)?

We’re here to help. Feels like Camp No. 1, but we’ll need until Friday night at 10:45ish to decide. By then, the USC game will be in the rearview mirror and more definitive answers will have been provided.

WSU’s first four games have been promising, but three were expected blowouts and the fourth required a miraculous comeback.

What did we learn about WSU’s opponents in September?

Montana State isn’t big on the forward pass. Boise State doesn’t have their usual NFL-caliber running back or prolific offense.

Oregon State could go winless in the Pac-12. Nevada has taken major steps in reverse after an impressive stretch with winning records and bowl appearances.

What did we learn about the Cougars?

They can zero in on an outmanned opponent – at least for the first 30 minutes Saturday – with a monster game just six days away.

“Coaches were loud and clear about what’s coming up next week,” running back Jamal Morrow said, “but we still had to focus on this week.”

The offensive line has been chastised by coach Mike Leach, but the unit had one of its better days Saturday. WSU absorbed four sacks, a couple that quarterback Luke Falk could have avoided by throwing the ball away, but produced 505 passing yards. The ground game started strong, but faded as the game progressed.

“Yeah, you hear it,” O’Connell said of the criticism, “but seeing it and knowing we left a lot of yards out there leaves a bad taste in your mouth.”

The offense is back in sync after struggling for three quarters against Boise State. Falk found 13 targets against the Wolf Pack. He usually had enough time in the pocket to write a term paper.

“Just people doing their job,” said Falk, sporting a weathered WSU cap he purchased on his first day on campus. “It (the cap) is a good reminder. I love this hat. It’s a hard-working hat.”

The quick-footed Mata’afa is a nightmare for opposing linemen. He sacked Kaymen Cureton on the first play and teamed with Garrett McBroom to haul down the freshman quarterback on the third play. Later, Mata’afa was double-teamed, kept battling and drew a holding call on Jake Nelson.

“I think we’re hungrier this year,” Mata’afa said. “We really want to take the ball away from the offense. That’s our style, getting takeaways is the ultimate goal. If we continue to do that, I think we’ll keep it rolling throughout the season.”

They’re about to get every opportunity to prove it.