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John Blanchette: Washington State shining brighter than ever standing just outside spotlight

UPDATED: Sun., Sept. 1, 2019

PULLMAN – All in all, it’s pretty good being Washington State these days, and not just because the scoreboard read 58-7 in the Cougars’ favor on Saturday night.

Still overlooked? Sure – by everybody but HBO’s snoopy cameras.

Still snubbed? Well, they are ranked 23rd, but how often does anyone read down that far?

Still underestimated? Yup – picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 North, which even in a division this stacked is a little like being the seventh groomsman trying to squeeze into the wedding party photo.

And yet that’s perfect, as the kids in customer service say now.

Really, you’d feel more fulfilled if the Cougs were the Pac-12 standard bearers? Who needs that aggravation?

Look what happened to Oregon on Saturday night, carrying all the hopes and dreams of the league – the Ducks might as well have had commissioner Larry Scott’s mug as a helmet logo – into a JerryWorld showdown with Auburn. All they did was gag away a 21-6 lead by letting a true freshman quarterback ring up 21 straight points to finish the game.

Yet more Pac-12 aspirations of adequacy go down in flames. Yet another equity share in underachievement for sale.

Besides, that kind of ambition would mean scheduling a legit Power 5 nonconference game and the Cougs either haven’t been in the mood or haven’t been able to swing such a thing – at least not for three more years yet when they have something cooked up with Wisconsin. Maybe things will be different by that time.

Until then, the Cougs should enjoy where they are:

• Taking care of business – carving up the likes of New Mexico State without much in the way of resistance.

• Shoring up what remains of the Pac-12’s rep, or just what lodge brothers UCLA and Arizona didn’t do during college football’s opening weekend.

• Thrilling their intimate gatherings. Surely they’d like to see more than 27,228 on opening night for a program that won 11 games last year but, well, Labor Day weekend and all.

• And enjoying the breakout debut of yet another overnight sensation, five years in the making.

Anthony Gordon, where have you been all this time? Right on the roster, you say? How about that?

Broadway was built on the backs of singers and dancers in the chorus suddenly shining when given a chance at stardom, but this wasn’t even that, so much. Up until Saturday night, Gordon was the guy whispering cues to the lead from behind the stage drapes.

His Wazzu résumé: two appearances, five passes, three completions, 17 yards, one interception.

His first half against the Aggies: 22 of 23, 330 yards, four touchdowns.

He didn’t have one fall incomplete until about 6 minutes before the half – and even that one hit Brandon Arconado in the numbers.

“As far as a first-time start,” WSU coach Mike Leach said of Gordon, “he was as precise as anybody I’ve ever had.”

Given how measured Leach normally is in his assessments, this is the equivalent of him erecting a statue for Gordon out on Stadium Way.

Especially because it didn’t end there.

“Real quick, real precise,” Leach said “He did communicate well. There’s a clarity to how he runs the huddle. He did a really good job of putting them in the end zone. There wasn’t that kind of first-game stuff where somebody’s afraid to make a mistake. Put them in the end zone right away.”

No kidding. This wasn’t just red-zone stuff. His touchdown strikes went for 41 yards (to Rodrick Fisher), 48 yards (Dezmon Patmon), 19 yards (Easop Winston Jr.) and 54 yards (Travell Harris, who also caught a 20-yarder from Gordon in the second half).

“You throw a little 2-yard pass or a 10-yard pass and guys take it 60 yards,” Gordon said. “Sitting there watching it happen is pretty crazy.”

Until this night, Gordon watched it happen from the sideline for three years after his transfer from the City College of San Francisco – first behind Luke Falk, then behind the Gardner Minshew Experience. This rare gift of patience in Portal America isn’t likely to redefine the current concept of what a competitor is, but it’s surely a window into Gordon.

Here’s another one: This was the best starting debut by a Cougar quarterback in 30 years.

Gordon’s final numbers – 29 for 35, 420 yards, five TDs – also included an NCAA quarterback rating of 230.8 To find a better first start, you have to go back to Brad Gossen’s 232.2 in a three-TD performance against Idaho in 1989 – though Connor Halliday had a 226.9 in an extended relief role against Arizona State in 2011, and Falk threw five TDs in his first start against Oregon State in 2014.

Gordon may have made it look easier than any of them.

“The Air Raid doesn’t have a lot of plays,” he said, “but there are 25 plays we’re really good at.”

That may be short of perfect, but it’s still a pretty good place to be.

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