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Washington State’s Sun Bowl loss was the first blemish on the short Jake Dickert era, showing he still has plenty to learn

Washington State head coach Jake Dickert watches the action during the second half of Friday’s Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas. Central Michigan held off the Cougars 24-21 after dashing to a 21-0 advantage.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Re)
By Jacob Thorpe For The Spokesman-Review

You might say Jake Dickert has no one to blame but himself.

Washington State’s half-season head coach had such a run of success after taking over for the infamously departed Nick Rolovich that he never got a honeymoon. The coach who wins three of his first four conference games and blows out Washington in the Apple Cup flattens his own learning curve.

So there was no excuse for the Cougars to show up unprepared for Friday’s bowl game in El Paso, Texas, losing 24-21 to Central Michigan after sleepwalking their way to a three-touchdown deficit in the first half.

There’s no denying it was a bad loss, one that takes some wind out of the sails of a program that had been cruising into Dickert’s first offseason as head coach. After a month selling recruits on your vision for a program that beat UW by 27 points in Seattle, the coaches may find a chillier reception in high school hallways after the loss to a mere midmajor opponent.

Dickert gets to own all the success the team has had on his watch, which is how he turned a temporary gig into a permanent one.

The losses lay at his feet as well.

But the manner in which the half-staffed Cougars gave their fans a reason to stick around – eating up the halftime deficit and putting one more thrilling finish on the table – makes the same point abundantly clear: This is Dickert’s program now.

There is not so much to be gleaned from a game that was canceled, then reinstalled when CMU stepped up to fill-in for COVID-stricken Miami. If there was a lesson to be learned on Friday it was: Don’t look a gift forfeit in the mouth.

We still have a lot to learn about what style of football the Cougars will play going forward. WSU has hired Air Raid-oriented Eric Morris to run the offense. Early reports of the Cougars recruiting tight ends, a position that has not been used in Pullman for almost a decade, hint at the changes on the way.

Dickert’s program does have an identity, however. One forged through two years of responding to challenges none of the players could have dreamed of when they were being recruited, and few of their predecessors had faced. Games canceled. Coaches bailing rather than take a vaccine. Near-constant testing and protocols.

Through it all, WSU’s mindset under Dickert has been to brush it off, play with whatever players are available, and make it work with what they have.

So it went on Friday in the second half. In addition to not having the team’s top two running backs, starting offensive tackles and some pretty good defensive backs, quarterback and offensive engine Jayden de Laura was knocked out of the game.

Backup quarterback Jarrett Guarantano did not travel to El Paso, presumably opting out to focus on going pro in something other than sports. Backup Cammon Cooper left the team earlier this year, and so the “next man up” was sophomore quarterback Victor Gabalis, a student who is not on an athletic scholarship but is probably owed one.

All Gabalis did was toss for 177 yards and two touchdowns and lead the Cougars back from blowout to thrilling finish. It was not Tua Tagovailoa subbing in for Jalen Hurts at halftime to win the 2017 national championship, but it was something.

The comeback could have been completed had the officials been slightly more generous on WSU’s final fourth-down attempt. So it goes.

“It’s been the story of our season,” Dickert said. “As many times when things could have gone the other way, they kept fighting.”

Resilience is a great quality to have, when it is needed. The ability to bounce back quickly has seen WSU through what could have been a disastrous transition following Rolovich’s firing. The problem is on Friday the adversity to which the Cougars were responding was self-inflicted.

This is Dickert’s team now. He needs to figure out what went wrong and fix it.