PULLMAN – Five or six times every fall, the Cougars see the built-in advantages of playing football in a traditional college town, where students drive the energy, passion, noise and enthusiasm that have helped make Washington State such a tough team to overcome at Martin Stadium.
This week, they could see the other side of that equation.
The Cougars can promise to throw the ball 50 times, they can guarantee to hang 40-50 points on the scoreboard and their marketing department can stretch creative boundaries by manufacturing small Mike Leach figurines programmed with whimsical Leach quotes and handing them out to the first 10,000 attendees.
Or, if it helps draw attention to their cause, they can make bold declarations about the outcome itself, as one confident Coug did last week at a postgame press conference.
“A win feels great,” sophomore running back Max Borghi said at the time. “We just gotta carry it into next week, and have a great week of practice and prepare for Oregon State because we’re goin’ bowlin’, guaranteeing that, because we’re gonna win next week.”
But what Leach, Borghi and the Cougars can’t do is prevent thousands of undergraduate students from ditching their books, throwing a week’s worth of clothes into a suitcase and zipping out of the Palouse Saturday morning to start their Thanksgiving holiday.
Maybe the Cougars should send linebacker Jahad Woods and a few of his position mates to different dorms and apartments across town as a last-ditch effort to quarantine any students planning to leave before WSU (5-5, 2-5) plays Oregon State (5-5, 4-3) at 6 p.m. in a Pac-12 North duel that will make one team bowl eligible and induce a series of panic attacks over the next seven days from the other.
If electronic replicas of Leach’s head weren’t enough to keep students here, the eighth-year coach made a pitch of his own during Monday’s news conference.
“We definitely want our students to stay one more day here,” Leach said. “A lot of them are close enough to get back and all the rest, and they ought to just bring their parents out here. They can hang out at Zeppoz. There’s all kinds of bowling. You can go see if you can catch a steelhead or something. All kinds of great places and great fun here in Pullman.”
But even with the stakes, the drama and the pregame Senior Day festivities, the game isn’t exactly a hot ticket.
The Spokesman-Review learned Friday afternoon there were still 3,600 tickets unsold for WSU’s home finale, which the Cougars will also use to celebrate 14 seniors, including former quarterback Tyler Hilinski, whose parents Mark and Kym plan to be in attendance.
Don’t read that as WSU being 3,600 tickets shy of hitting capacity. Nearly 8,300 are allotted to students every game, and another 14,200-14,300 for season ticket holders. So what will determine attendance figures is how many out-of-towners make the commute to Pullman and, more important, how many students find the game attractive enough to sacrifice one day of their holiday break.
Last season, with Pac-12 title ramifications and College Football Playoff hopes hanging in the balance, the Cougars took 10 wins into a Nov. 17 game against Arizona but only drew 22,400 fans to Martin Stadium. In 2015, WSU hosted Colorado in a game that overlapped with the first day of Thanksgiving break and pulled in 25,000 fans.
The Cougars are “trending ahead of last year” for the contest, according to a source, but they still aren’t anticipating big numbers one week after selling out the venue for a 49-22 Dad’s Weekend win over Stanford.
If the Cougars don’t get the student-generated noise, they have a contingency plan.
“That’s kind of a point of emphasis every week for us,” quarterback Anthony Gordon said. “Whether the crowd’s in it or not, we need to create our own energy and get ourselves going. Coach Leach likes to use the word ‘self-starter.’ We’ve got to be some self-starters this week and be inspired on our own.”
Especially because the Beavers have no problem beating opponents on their home turf. OSU hasn’t played a daunting road schedule (UCLA, Cal, Arizona), but Jonathan Smith’s club is still an impressive 3-1 outside of Corvallis this year and 3-0 in Pac-12 road games.
The Cougars have been almost unbeatable at home, going 22-2 at Martin Stadium the last four seasons against opponents not named Washington. That includes last season’s wire-to-wire rout of Arizona. Even with a small crowd, the Cougars produced their best offensive game of the year and Gardner Minshew threw for a school-record seven touchdowns in the 69-28 win.
That could be encouraging for Minshew’s successor, who faces a similar challenge.
“It’s going to be a whole lot similar crowd, I’m guessing,” Gordon said. “Maybe a little bit better weather, but other than that, it’s going to be pretty similar and we’re going to have to create our own energy and get each other hyped throughout the game.”
And what about Borghi’s bold prediction?
“It’s quite a Max statement,” said Gordon, who rooms with Borghi. “But I support him. I’m behind him and we’re going to do everything we can to get a win this week.”
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