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Sports >  WSU football

John Blanchette: Washington State finally able to focus on football, for the most part

UPDATED: Sat., Oct. 23, 2021

By John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – Finally, just football.

OK, mostly football.

Yet for the Washington State Cougars, not enough winning football.

But what did you expect? They were playing the Pac-12 champs – or at least the leader in the clubhouse.

Something suggests that distinction is not going to intimidate anyone when Brigham Young makes its move to the Big 12 in 2023.

Still, it’s cachet enough for the Cougars of BYU, who had already dispatched Arizona, Utah and Arizona State this fall. On Saturday, they became the first team in the country with four wins over the Pac-12 by edging Wazzu 21-19 at Martin Stadium, on the strength of a botched PAT, a too-tricky 2-point conversion that turned into a stink bomb and a durable, punishing ball carrier who demonstrated the run can exist quite nicely with only a modicum of shoot.

Oh, and then there was this: BYU caught the home-team Cougs changing their coaching staff on the fly.

If it winds up costing the Cougs a bowl game, that’s just one more thing for the freedom flamethrowers to blame on Big Government.

Maybe in private, Wazzu’s players will, as well.

Or maybe they’ll just see Saturday for the missed opportunity it was.

There certainly wasn’t any pout in them on game day or the rest of the week, at least beyond what could be expected in the immediacy of the week’s trauma bomb that exploded over their program on Monday.

That was the day, of course, that the school “separated” from former head coach Nick Rolovich and four of his assistants over their refusal to adhere to the governor’s mandate for state employees and get themselves inoculated with the COVID-19 vaccine.

Two lawsuits are already in the works, one from Rolovich himself, his lawyer splashing a claim of “vindictiveness” against WSU athletic director Pat Chun, a strange charge against someone who took a flyer on the coach in the first place.

Then again, up in the lobby outside the Coaches Club on the stadium’s press level, a large photo on the wall of Rolovich, Chun and president Kirk Schulz had been replaced by the WSU logo.

Once a Coug, always a … well, once a Coug, anyway.

It’s unlikely anyone indulged the fantasy that anyone – players, the remaining coaches and the program’s constituents – would magically move on from this upheaval in a mere 24 hours or so, as diligently as the Cougars tried.

“It was a challenging week for our young men,” acknowledged Jake Dickert, the Cougars’ defensive coordinator and now acting head coach. “But at the same time, what kept them going was their love for the game and love for each other, and they kept coming back to that. As the week kept going, the energy and effort kept building.

“I told them, nothing can steal your joy. Nothing. Don’t allow it to happen. If you love to dance before practice, dance. You’ve got to get back to being you.”

They showed their moves immediately, with a flawless opening drive and a full dance card for Max Borghi, including an 11-yard run for the first of his three touchdowns.

And then they never quite regained their rhythm.

BYU unleashed Tyler Allgeier – a more bullish Borghi – who would grind Wazzu for 191 yards on 32 carries before afternoon’s end. On defense, the visitors showed a lot of three-man rush and a flooded secondary, taking away Jayden de Laura’s windows and the long ball – the Cougs had just three completions that went for 20 or more yards.

And then there were the two killer special teams errors – the botched PAT hold after the second WSU touchdown, and the misbegotten end-around pass call to try and get it back that took the ball out of the hands of the Cougars’ most reliables.

This was a game that could have seen overtime, if not nine of them like Illinois and Penn State played Saturday.

“We lost to a good team,” tackle Abraham Lucas said, taking in the emotional events of the week, “but we didn’t roll over, either. I think a lot of people nationwide and even in this community probably expected us to just roll over and die.”

Actually, just as many people expected the Cougars to be even feistier in the face of losing half their coaches. But in the end, they came up short in a game that could have made their season. Only one home game remains – Arizona next month, a likely victory given how hapless the Wildcats have been. To reach bowl eligibility, another must be scraped out on the road against Arizona State, Oregon or Washington.

And healing is a long-term matter. The Cougs must still get used to their reinforcement coaches, and the new normal Dickert has referenced. In talking about WSU’s football errors that will be addressed on film Monday, he touched on a concept that applies to the psyche as well.

“I like to call it scarring,” he said. “If you make a mistake, it’s got to scar you so you don’t do it again.”

This change wasn’t a mistake. But the scarring is ongoing.

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