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Sports >  WSU football

John Blanchette: WSU puts on refreshing performance with win over Arizona State, proving team’s resiliency runs deep

Oct. 30, 2021 Updated Sat., Oct. 30, 2021 at 8:42 p.m.

By John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

To repurpose a line from an old TV skit, resiliency is a hell of a drug.

It is certainly the medication of choice for the Washington State Cougars, who in the football year 2021 are setting new standards for hanging in there and pushing through.

And now, not settling for merely that.

In the process, the Cougars have turned what was once a season mired in one man’s cheap political theatre into something fun, even a little inspirational – Saturday’s 34-21 undressing of dazed and confused Arizona State in Tempe being exhibit A.

Best of all, the Cougars didn’t forget the icy shower for Jake Dickert’s first victory as a head coach, which comes with no asterisk even with “acting” in front of the title. It was a splashdown infused with a lot more obvious joy than the last time the Cougs overturned the Gatorade bucket.

“Man, it’s colder than you think,” Dickert laughed.

Wait, coach, when it’s 81 degrees outside, it’s called “refreshing.”

But that was the case in every aspect pretty much all afternoon for Wazzu. Especially the most important aspect.

“We won this game,” Dickert insisted, “because we played harder.”

And the signal came early when the Cougars forced fumbles on ASU’s second and third offensive snaps. WSU’s offense was too skittish to turn the first one into points, but it cashed in on each of the next four.

That’s right, five takeaways.

It was the one department that likely cost them a week ago in the angst-laden loss to Brigham Young, the Cougars’ first game after Nick Rolovich and four assistant coaches were relieved of their jobs for refusal to receive COVID-19 vaccinations as mandated for state employees. Among the national leaders in turning over opponents, the Cougs couldn’t manage even one to overcome a couple of special teams slips in a 21-19 loss.

On Saturday, it seemed like part of the game plan.

Most teams like to script their first 10 offensive plays. You could have sworn the Cougs scripted those early takeaways.

There was no discounting how crucial those were in the Cougs building a 28-0 lead. Wazzu started four drives on the ASU side of the 50, and that was even before the two recovered onside kicks in the fourth quarter.

But the Cougs were good at a lot more than simple larceny.

Against the Pac-12’s No. 1 defense, they rushed for a season-high 166 yards, the bulk of it split evenly between Deon McIntosh and Max Borghi. Calvin Jackson Jr. found open pastures amid the ASU secondary. The pass rush, though limited to a single Ron Stone Jr. sack, hounded Sun Devils quarterback Jayden Daniels into two interceptions and several other mistakes.

And the Cougs were absolutely at their best when absolutely nothing happened.

That would be the third quarter, when ASU could make no dent in that three-touchdown halftime deficit. Wazzu didn’t do anything dumb on offense and did a lot of smart things on D.

“That was the moment in the game when things could have slipped,” Dickert said. “We did a good job of getting off the field on third down on defense … and then letting our offense grind some things out and create some field position. That proved we could finish this game.”

And, in a larger sense, the season.

Anyone invested in Wazzu’s football outcomes had to wonder about how a bunch of 20-somethings – or younger – would weather the midseason upheaval in the coaching staff and the tug of war for hearts and minds in the assignment of blame.

The BYU game didn’t particularly address that. It came within days of the coaching change and while the Cougs competed, they didn’t win, and understandably weren’t at their best.

“A lot of people counted us out and doubted us,” Stone said, and, ‘Oh, they’re not going to be able to transition from this.’ ”

That seemed to be reflected in the odds – the Cougs were 16-point underdogs. Now, those are set to goose betting, but that Vegas had to stretch it that far as an inducement reflected the vibe.

And yet here they are – winners of four straight Pac-12 games, still very much in the North Division hunt and one win from bowl eligibility. Remember that this same team lost to Utah State to open the season, and was wiped out by USC two weeks later.

That was before five coaches were shown the door. Arizona State, meanwhile, had three assistants put on paid leave before the season as part of a probe into recruiting violations and still started 5-1, but has been outscored 62-21 in its past six quarters.

“It’s hard to put into words unless you’re in it, unless you feel it, unless you see these kids in their eyes and their hearts,” Dickert said. “I know they care a lot, they’ve been through a lot and they’re going to keep pushing.

“Life doesn’t always go the way you want it to. But our guys have stayed the course and kept fighting.”

Resiliency. It’s more than a Band-Aid.

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