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John Blanchette: Victorious WSU football can find out what R-E-S-P-E-C-T means

 (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – Wow. The Pac-12 is back, and with a vengeance.

Oregon goes into the Horseshoe without half its defense and hangs some shame on No. 3 Ohio State.

And Washington State pummels Portland State.

Ha ha! It’s never too early in the football season for an irony alert.

Of course, we know that Exhibit B has nothing to do with Exhibit A and certainly not with the premise of Pac-12 respectability, which continues to be a moving target in 2021.

But at least the Cougars got what they paid $525,000 for – victory and a reason to feel good about themselves – which is more than the haughty cousins over the mountains could say when they went shopping for Big Sky produce last week.

Yes, the Wazzu fan base will be neener-neenering about that Husky fo-paw all season, no matter what the standings or the scoreboard say week to week – and even at the Apple Cup in November.

But for the moment, that fan base can also take heart that the Cougars at least restored some pecking-order normalcy to their own circumstances, and moved the ball outside the what-the-hell-is-going-on zone where they bivouacked in Week 1.

Not that any of it seems very weighty – either Saturday’s 44-24 cruise past Portland State, or whatever that mess was in the opener.

Because USC comes to town on Saturday.

This is not a warning that residents need to have their lawns mowed and edged and cars in the driveway waxed for the swanky visitors. But it would be a timely occasion for the Cougars to make a good impression, especially in that no one expects them to.

Or, dare it be said, wants them to.

Here in the post-Larry Scott Pac-12, the priority weather vane has been redirected toward football, perhaps too late. The conference is absolutely desperate to rid itself of a sad-sackish image in the national consciousness, and that pretty much has to be accomplished by the marquee institutions – the first step winning a few September crossover games, a la UCLA and the Ducks.

Step two is not stumbling against the ensemble players in their own drama.

Naturally, a conference-wide memo cannot be issued asking for cooperation.

“We’ve got a big one coming up,” said running back Max Borghi, not sounding like a man giving much thought to the Pac-12’s reputation.

But Portland State was a big one, too, in its own way – if only to prove that the Cougs can get out of theirs.

The fourth-quarter pratfall that allowed Utah State to escape Martin Stadium with its first victory over a Power Five opponent in seven years threatened to leave psychological scarring. That it didn’t was maybe the more important victory on Saturday.

“We had to get ourselves stable,” WSU coach Nick Rolovich said, “and had to play well and finish the game.”

The finish in this case came with a late third-quarter touchdown by Borghi that ran the score to 37-10. The Vikings did tack on two fourth-quarter scores against the Wazzu depth chart, but to no particular harm to the psyche.

The start was a little problematic.

Given three short fields in the first quarter by the defense and the splendid return work of Travell Harris, the Cougs produced but a single score – a wonderful pass by Jayden de Laura and catch by Calvin Jackson Jr. that covered 22 yards. The other opportunities were wasted by a telegraphed pass into the end zone, a holding penalty and a sack.

But Harris wasn’t going to leave it at that, so he reeled off a 50-yard kickoff return that got the Cougs into PSU territory again. This time, they went up-tempo to put the visitors on skates – and kept up the rhythm right into the locker room at halftime, up 30-10.

“Jayden plays good at that pace,” Rolovich explained, “and I think it calms things down defensively.”

The seed was planted a week before, the offense pushing the tempo trying to give its defense another look for Utah State but Rolovich and staff “seeing that it was fairly effective for us, too.”

If the Cougs had a better day, so did the coach, who a week ago started the wrong quarterback and then subbed him out at the wrong time. First-week starter Jarrett Guarantano’s injury saved him any hard decisions in that regard Saturday.

And Rolovich also exercised his personal freedom to get Borghi more than the 14 touches or targets he had a week ago. OK, only two more, but it was only a game for three quarters – and there just felt like more of a commitment to Borghi and Deon McIntosh early, and it was reflected in the final play count: 33 runs, 32 passes.

But such balance may not be possible next week.

“We know the challenge will be there now,” Rolovich said. “Clay (Helton, USC’s head coach) and those guys feel like they’re playing for something.

“The Cougs feel that way, too.”

Or at least they’re back to feeling that way. Like respectability, it seems to come and go.