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John Blanchette: Sour Cheez-It Bowl epitomized how Washington State regressed this season

PHOENIX – On Cheez-It Bowl Eve, Anthony Gordon was agreeably facing questions about matters post-Cheez – his appearance in the Senior Bowl next month and the NFL draft beyond. One seemed to suggest that Gordon had a decision to make, that there were choices involved.

Washington State’s senior quarterback clarified the point but hastened to add, “I wish I could come back.”

There’s probably plenty to read into that.

Maybe it’s because the Cougars’ season – silhouetted against the program’s recent history – wasn’t all that special, bowl rerun notwithstanding, and he coveted a do-over.

Maybe it’s that he never got a chance to showcase his considerable skills on the big-time stage until his fifth college year and now it seems done all to quickly.

This morning, maybe it’s the regret of another defining moment slipping through the Cougars’ paws in Gordon’s finale – a 31-21 loss to Air Force on Friday night at Chase Field.

Well, actually it was kind of a defining moment, 2019-style.

Little in the way of defensive relief, a potent offense that couldn’t bail the defense out against a decent opponent, an untimely midseason injury to America’s most unsung impact player, curious decisions – and more fireworks off the field, frankly, than on.

Five bowls in a row? An achievement in itself.

A 6-7 season as the cherry on top? Pretty damned bitter.

Especially since loss No. 7 can’t be blamed on the other team getting, you know, better recruits.

Unless the recruiting battle is for future lieutenants and generals.

It’s not back-to-the-drawing-board time, by any means, but given what the Cougars have accustomed themselves to, some evaluation and soul-searching surely seem in order.

Maybe it’s already started.

“You’ve got to keep pushing the envelope,” coach Mike Leach said. “I thought we were capable of more – and we’re going to do everything we can do as we approach the offseason.”

But in-season – this season – the Cougars didn’t just fail to push the envelope. They regressed, and it was evident in microcosm against the uber-disciplined Falcons.

Given more time to prepare for the Flexbone triple-option than the Falcons’ week-to-week opponents in the Mountain West Conference, the Cougars still surrendered 371 yards and an average of 5.4 every time the Birdies ran the ball.

Hey, that’s 3 fewer yards than what the Cougars averaged when completing a pass – but with the Falcons owning the ball for a ridiculous 43 minutes, 24 seconds, there wasn’t time for Gordon to complete enough of them.

“We let them eat the whole clock up with our inability to stop them,” Leach said.

Hmm. This from the guy who wipes his muddy shoes on time-of-possession stats.

Meanwhile, Leach’s offense had two killing whiffs – fourth downs inside the Falcons’ 5-yard line in the first and fourth quarters when handoffs went to Max Borghi and the sophomore running back was stopped short.

They were the kind of situations the give-to-Borghi brigade has been begging for all year. Funny how the Falcons seemed so prepared for what was coming.

For all that, the game likely came down to a spectacular play of inches by the Falcons on a fourth-down of their own – Kadin Remsberg going airborne and stretching the ball barely over the goal line as he was met by Cougars safety Tyrese Ross a split-second too late. That the Falcons ate up another 6 minutes of clock in getting there was merely a bonus.

“You’ve got to put it in – that’s all that counts,” Leach said. “Did we score or did we not? Did they score or did they not?”

The Cougs did not. Just 34 points in their last two games, in fact. Turns out you can beat Wazzu’s high-octane O by flooding the intermediate secondary with defenders, or by just keeping it well-rested on the sidelines.

But by this point, no one should have expected much more from the Cougs. Their bowl eligibility was attained against teams that went 22-50 this season, remember. That’s not a postseason resume – though it’s more of an indictment of college football getting drunk on bowl games and the need to fill them than it is on the Cougs, who certainly can’t be held responsible for anybody else being lousy.

But it’s been characteristic of Leach teams both at Wazzu and Texas Tech that a season would produce the odd victory or two over a favored – sometimes heavily favored – opponent, as well as a pratfall against the overmatched. Only the latter was achieved this time around, with the late swoon against UCLA.

Whatever energy and determination the Cougs summoned after the October loss at Arizona State to resurrect their season enough to play in December, it was mostly fools gold against anyone decent.

Or maybe a snack cracker, crumbling under the weight of someone’s heel.