LARAMIE, Wyo. – The amount of confidence pollsters and prognosticators have in the 2018 Washington State Cougars was perhaps best illustrated in an early-August preseason ranking of all 129 FBS teams, courtesy of CBS Sports.
The Cougars couldn’t crack the top 70 and were picked below every Pac-12 team aside from Oregon State.
If that didn’t catch WSU’s eye, maybe this did: The congregation of CBS analysts who formed the list carefully placed the Cougars one spot below the first team on their schedule.
Checking in at No. 71 were the Wyoming Cowboys. And at No. 72, the Cougars.
Even if WSU players missed out on that particular list, they’re well aware of how they’re being perceived this season. Maybe they changed a few minds Saturday after dominating Wyoming 41-19 in the season opener at War Memorial Stadium.
“They were wrong, that’s all I can really say,” defensive lineman Will Rodgers III said. “They were wrong and we went out and proved it. No point in talking about it, they were just wrong and they’re going to keep being wrong as long as they have us underdogs.”
Gardner Minshew tossed three touchdowns in his first start as a Pac-12 quarterback, all-purpose tailbacks James Williams and Max Borghi combined for three TDs, and the WSU defense, under the direction of first-year coordinator Tracy Claeys, held Wyoming’s offense at bay more times than not, holding the Cowboys to 206 yards of total offense.
So far, so good for the Cougars, who emerge from what many thought would be their toughest nonconference test with a 1-0 record.
“I thought we were resilient the second half,” said WSU coach Mike Leach, whose team trailed 16-13 at halftime, and 19-13 in the third quarter after taking a 10-0 lead early in the game. “It wasn’t for a lack of trying, but I thought the first half we tried to do too much, tried to be perfect, tentative, everything a perfect play. Is this perfect? But we did a good job not hesitating in the second half and I think that was a big step for us.”
There was nothing perfect about it, and who anticipated it would be for a team that faced as much offseason attrition, and has as much to replace as the Washington State Cougars?
No Luke Falk. No Hercules Mata’afa. No Cody O’Connell. No Alex Grinch. The Cougars might feel those losses at some point this season, but there was more than enough talent and toughness on the field to overcome a good Mountain West team on its home turf.
WSU’s answer for Falk was Minshew, the fifth-year grad transfer from East Carolina whose confidence, vocal leadership and maturity got the Cougars through their slog of a second quarter. The Cowboys turned Minshew’s only interception into six points to take a three-point lead before halftime, then made it 19-13 with a field goal in the third quarter.
Then Minshew and his receiving corps – which often included Williams and Borghi – found their stride and squeezed four touchdown drives into the game’s final 19 minutes, sending droves of Wyoming fans to the exit gates when Borghi’s 14-yard scoring run made it 34-19 with 5:50 left.
“(Minshew) had the same spirit even when he threw the pick, was playing bad,” said wide receiver Jamire Calvin, who turned five catches into a game-high 82 yards. “He had the same uplifting spirit and he controlled the offense, really. He helped us win this game.”
For the first time since 2014, WSU’s defensive line played a game without Mata’afa – and surprisingly didn’t flinch. The Cougars sacked Wyoming QB Tyler Vander Waal three times and held him to 8-of-20 passing for 67 yards.
“We tried to get out there, after them as much as we can,” Rodgers III said, “so when they did pass, they didn’t want to do it anymore.”
This offseason, WSU replaced Grinch with Claeys, who’d gone more than 600 days without coaching a college football game after a yearlong break from the sport.
If he was rusty, it didn’t show. Claeys dialed up three-and-outs in Wyoming’s first three series and the Cougars kept the Cowboys out of the end zone for the rest of the game after Avante’ Cox scored on a 23-yard sweep with 5:07 left in the second quarter. Wyoming running back Nico Evans made things easier for WSU when he left the game with a chest injury in the third quarter after rushing for a game-high 89 yards.
“We had a good defensive game, we just have new people playing a lot of positions and a new coach,” nickel Hunter Dale said. “It’s definitely a first game to feel out like that, but I feel like a lot of people that stepped in did their job.”
Many wondered how WSU’s offensive line would regroup after losing three starters, including an All-American at left guard (O’Connell) and an NFL fifth-round draft pick at right tackle (Madison). The opener was, if nothing else, a positive start. Minshew was sacked just once and three running backs accumulated 101 yards on the ground, plus two touchdowns.
“I thought we had some communication issues at times,” Leach said, “but generally for a first game and some new faces, I thought they did a good job.”
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