There wasn’t all that much familiar with Washington State’s football program as it opened the 2018 season at Wyoming on Saturday afternoon.
Except, fittingly for a team that has won 27 games in the last three-plus seasons, the final score.
That would be 41-19, with the Cougars breezing past the host Wyoming Cowboys with a dominant second half before 24,131 in Laramie.
And there was a familiar voice on the CBS Sports Network broadcast, at least for Spokane-based Cougars fans with long memories.
Rich Waltz began his career here, calling Indians and Chiefs games fresh out of college in the mid-1980s. That started him down a road that led to a variety of assignments, including the Miami Marlins’ radio voice for a few years and many college football games.
What they saw …
It’s more of what they didn’t see, at least at first.
Quarterback Luke Falk is gone after four record-setting seasons. Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch is in Ohio. Starters on the offensive and defensive line had to be replaced as well.
But WSU still has Mike Leach on the sidelines and his familiar Air Raid offense, even with a new quarterback running the show.
“Gardner Minshew is dealing,” Waltz exclaimed early in the fourth quarter as the grad transfer from East Carolina threw a perfect 7-yard touchdown pass to Easop Winston Jr. to boost the Cougars’ lead to 27-19.
Minshew was dealing, especially after halftime. Of his 319 passing yards, 191 came in the second half, when he converted 21 of 27 throws. Two of those went for touchdowns.
“When he has time in the pocket,” said analyst Aaron Murray, a former quarterback, “he’s an accurate thrower.”
The rebuilt Washington State offensive line gave him plenty of time on his 57 attempts, though Minshew’s one interception, an errant first-half throw, came on a blown blitz pickup. The Cowboys (1-1) used it and a Max Borghi fumble to score 14 first-half points. The other two points came on a bad punt snap that led to a safety.
In the second half, when the Cougars took care of the ball, Wyoming struggled against the new-look defense, with former Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys now the coordinator.
Murray put much of the blame for Wyoming’s struggles – the Cowboys had 206 yards of total offense – on a lack of imagination.
“At some point today you’re going to have to trust your young quarterback,” Murray said of redshirt freshman Tyler Vander Waal in the second quarter.
The Cowboys rarely did, with Vander Waal throwing just 20 passes for 67 yards. Some big drops, especially late, didn’t help, but Wyoming wanted to run more.
Losing leading rusher Nico Evans with an upper-body injury – sideline reporter A. J. Ross ran that down despite Waltz saying Wyoming would not release in-game information – was big, but it was more a matter of WSU’s defense rarely bending or breaking.
What we saw …
A lot of yellow flags, for one thing.
Waltz referred to it in the third quarter, calling it a tough game to officiate. He was right. Though he may have been less right when he praised referee Kevin Hassell’s mixed Mountain West and Big 12 crew, for having “done a nice job.”
There were enough iffy ones – a couple of holds, an odd pass-interference on the Cowboys, an undetectable illegal fair catch flag – to keep both benches unhappy.
That and the 184 combined penalty yards.
There was also a new formation the Cougars unveiled in the third quarter, with almost the entire offense outside the numbers on the short side of the field. Kyle Sweet served as the center and he snapped the ball directly to James Williams, who ran for nine of his 82 rushing yards.
“I would call that Mike Leach creativity or eccentricity,” Waltz said as Murray admitted he had never seen anything like it. “I think I saw Knute Rockne call that,” Waltz answered.
Murray, when he wasn’t using clichés like, “You could drive a truck through that hole,” did a good job explaining defensive lapses and offensive successes. He also came up with the occasional zinger, including after one Minshew completion that floated to the receiver. “Spirals are optional sometimes,” Murray offered.
Especially in the first game of the season. With a lot of new faces around.
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