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John Blanchette: Washington State proves traditional college football blueprints don’t decide winners

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

We’ve learned a lot in eight months about what we can get along without. Here was Washington State’s list on Saturday night:

  • A quarterback with any collegiate experience.

Its all-world running back

  • .
  • Throwing the ball on every damned down.
  • Excuses.
  • Spring football.

Maybe that most of all. If nothing else, let the Cougars’ 38-28 victory at Oregon State be the final word that college football’s obsession with spring drills makes no more sense than giving a reality TV show host the nuclear launch codes.

Hey – just trying to make America rational again.

In fact, the two teams in action that were breaking in new coaches without the getting-to-know-you of spring ball both won on the Pac-12’s breakfast-to-last-call opening Saturday, brought to you at this late point on the calendar by the gang COVID-19, Inc.

So take that, conventional wisdom.

Whether this one merits more than a footnote in the Big Book of Cougar Lore is something left to picky historians, who will likely downgrade the opponent – the Beavers having now lost seven straight in the series and being a traditional footwipe – and slap on the COVID- season asterisk.

But it’s for sure going to get the highlighter treatment from Nick Rolovich and Jayden de Laura.

Except perhaps they may have to flip a coin to decide whose “era” this officially began.

Or maybe let’s just give it to the kid.

Rolovich isn’t the first coach to win his Wazzu opener, but he’s the first since Bert Clark in 1964 to have to do it against a conference opponent. That he managed to have the better-prepared team despite some of the handicaps mentioned is a pretty good recommendation – but then, he did get an apprenticeship in four years as Hawaii’s head coach.

But de Laura? He wasn’t just the first true freshman quarterback to win a season opener, he was the first to start one – the kind of precociousness that drives all of us underachievers out here crazy. And he may have looked more sure of himself than the coach.

You saw it early on a 16-yard scramble for the game’s initial first down, on the option keeper for a touchdown that looked gummed up at the start and on the pretty touchdown fade to Travell Harris that broke the game open, at least for a time.

As WSU quarterback debuts go, numbers are an imperfect measure. Just a year ago, Anthony Gordon threw for 420 yards and five touchdowns, completing a ridiculous 83% of his passes against New Mexico State. Gardner Minshew, Luke Falk, Ryan Leaf, Brad Gossen – all had sensational first starts or appearances.

None of them had just registered for his first college class just a few months before.

Nevertheless, de Laura completed 18 of 33 throws for 227 yards and two touchdowns – and added a couple of otherworldly flourishes when he chose to run the ball himself. The immediate WSU comparisons were Jason Gesser and Ricky Turner; there may be more to come to some guys earning sizable paychecks on Sundays.

“He loves football, he loves winning, he wants to get better,” Rolovich said, “and early in that game, you could really see the respect he’d earned from those other guys.”

Still, what may have been most impressive about the Cougars this night was how much of an ensemble effort it was.

For example, with running back Max Borghi a late scratch due to back issues that cropped up in practice, replacement Deion McIntosh was – apologies to OSU’s very special Jermar Jefferson – the best back on the field. Would you believe 30 rushing attempts for the Cougars?

Maybe there’s a reason the first word in run-and-shoot is run.

The Cougars’ offensive line opened wide gaps and gave de Laura plenty of time, though OSU deciding not to throw extra pressure at a kid quarterback right from the jump made little sense.

And then there was WSU’s often- derided defense, which sent the Beavers back to the drawing board time and again through three quarters – showing off first-timers like edge rusher Brennan Jackson and corner Jaylen Watson and especially Ayden Hector, a true freshman walk-on who showed up starting at free safety.

Not every call was a home run, but the important ones were – like Harris’ 44-yard touchdown run out of a motion set that sealed the game. It caught the Beavers by surprise, but it shouldn’t have – Wazzu had run the same play the previous series.

At kickoff, just getting the game in seemed like a victory. Positive COVID tests had scuttled games between Cal and Washington, and Utah and Arizona. Ten games across the country were postponed or canceled.

That’s college football in 2020. The opponent isn’t just the guys in different-colored uniforms.

For one weekend, at least, the Cougs turned back both.

“It feels good,” Rolovich said, “to have something to believe in.”