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John Blanchette: Whatever you call them, Washington State’s players are one (guaranteed) win from bowl game

PULLMAN – It’s been there for fleeting moments all season. It made something considerably longer than a cameo on Saturday afternoon.

But boil it down to three brief scenes:

  • Anthony Gordon slipping a catalog through a mail slot from 15 yards away and Easop Winston Jr. holding tight while two defenders turn him into a sandwich.
  • Skyler Thomas throwing his 5-foot-9ism in front of Stanford’s 6-7 giant of a tight end Colby Parkinson for – wait for it – an actual interception, Washington State’s first in a month and at a defining juncture to boot.
  • Travell Harris busting loose for 83 yards on a kickoff return, acreage that penalties – real and hallucinated – had denied him too many times this year.

And about the time the Cougars were putting the final flourishes on a 49-22 drubbing of Stanford in the Dad’s Weekend glow of Martin Stadium, there was little doubt what was being seen:

The team the Cougars could have been all season. Should have been. And, hey, can still be.

Offense. Defense. Special teams.

Oh, and don’t forget bravado.

“We’re going bowling,” running back Max Borghi insisted. “I’m guaranteeing that, because we’re going to win next week.”

That would be Saturday night in Pullman against Oregon State, which like Wazzu needs one more victory for six and bowl eligibility – and now has all the bulletin board motivation it can possibly need.

Call it the knockout round for the Cheez-It Bowl. That’s all yours, Cougar marketing maestros. And you’re welcome.

Not that any bowl reps in eye-searing blazers were seen glad-handing about Martin on this particular afternoon. Of course, maybe at this point of the season they’re still scouting strictly for prospective referees, so they wouldn’t be at a Pac-12 game anyway.

The Cougars have at least put themselves in the conversation for one of college football’s many consolation prizes, though that’s barely a challenge with 39 bowls. And like every other Power 5 school, Wazzu gave itself a three-win head start with a squishy September schedule.

But they shouldn’t still be cramming on the eve of the final – not if they’re capable of a complete performance like this one.

No, the Cardinal has not been up to Stanford standards this season and the Cougars got riddled for 504 yards by the backup quarterback, Davis Mills. That’s a Stanford single-game record – yes, better than anything attached to an Elway, a Luck or a Plunkett, which says more about the Cougars’ duct-taped secondary than it does about Davis Mills.

Still, it’s the worst point-spread beating the Cougs have visited on a Stanford team in 58 years.

Coach Mike Leach has worn out his trolling vocabulary this year, calling his Cougars at various times soft, babies, fat, dumb, happy, entitled and, most recently, “frauds.” But they apparently handle criticism with more aplomb than their coach – digging in and playing what Leach allowed was their most complete game this season.

It’s not an exotic formula.

The defense is never going to be special. The front isn’t stout enough, the secondary can only aspire to the descriptive “beleaguered.” But it’s not incapable of the game-changing play, as Thomas illustrated with his pick and Jahad Woods with another in the end zone.

“The most important thing, we took Stanford out of two drives,” said Leach, forgetting the three other times the Cougs forced punts.

Which is something Stanford’s D couldn’t replicate. The Cougs scored every time they had the ball, except for an interception Gordon threw on the goal line and the end-of-game victory formation.

Otherwise, Gordon had a 520-yard night and became Wazzu’s single-season record-holder for touchdown passes with 39. So naturally Leach felt the need to bring out the same scarred drum he’s beaten in recent years for Luke Falk and Gardner Minshew.

“You know, there’s play after play in that game that other quarterbacks in the country can’t do,” he said, “and right now he is probably playing quarterback better than anyone in the country.”

Well, at least the coach can shift out of babies-and-frauds gear once in a while.

And even after a run of five losses in six games, he can still summon the team the Cougs can be – even if he hasn’t done it often enough.

“The only thing I really expect is that we play hard,” tackle Abraham Lucas said, “and there are times this year we clearly haven’t done that. Tonight was a complete team win. Offense – great running, great passing, great blocking. Defense – key stops. Special teams – Travell hits the big kick return, a missed (Stanford) field goal. It all piles up on top of each other.”

And if they pile up one more, the Cougs will be back in the bowl picture.

Oh, right. That’s done. Somebody already gave a guarantee.

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