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The Monday After: WSU’s resiliency on display in win over Wyoming

Perhaps I underestimated these guys.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Wyoming Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

There were a truckload of legitimate reasons to think that the Washington State Cougars might not be able to emerge from their season opener with the Wyoming Cowboys with a win.

My thought process — yes, I picked the Cougs to lose — was an extension of the logic I used to project just four wins this season:

  1. WSU has to replace a ton of talent;
  2. The program suffered through a ton of upheaval in the offseason, including the death of a teammate; and
  3. These are college students, not professional athletes.

In most seasons at WSU, the first one alone is enough to assume more losses than wins. But when you layer the second one on top ... man, it just seemed like a lot to assume that a bunch of 18- to 23-year-olds could overcome the plethora of offseason setbacks to achieve a break-even record, regardless of the indisputably improved talent baseline.

I wasn’t trying to be a jerk. I wasn’t trying to be a hater. I picked them to go 10-2 each of the last two seasons, for goodness sake. I honestly was just trying to be reasonable. I, like you, was a college student once — and I wasn’t always real great at dealing with adversity. As it pertained to Saturday, I figured there would be just enough things going sideways against a more experienced opponent in a hostile stadium to lead WSU to a very familiar season-opening result.

Which is why Saturday’s 41-19 win is particularly encouraging to me — there’s a pretty good chance at this point that I read this situation all wrong. And I would be extraordinarily happy if that was the case, because that would definitely change my baseline expectation for the season.

The Cougs did experience a fair amount of adversity — most of it of their own creation, which was completely unsurprising — 1,000 miles from home and 7,200 feet above sea level against a motivated opponent. Those turnovers in the second quarter were of the “here we go again” variety, putting WSU in a hole on the scoreboard despite having dominated the game to that point. It reminded me a heck of a lot of another game on the road against a Mountain West opponent — Boise State 2016.

But rather than wilt, the Cougars set themselves straight and blew past a Group of 5 team in the manner you’d expect from a Power 5 program that has won 26 games in the last three seasons. This, despite myriad well-documented factors working against them. That’s really, really cool for WSU, since I don’t need to tell you that — with the exception of a few blips — our program’s history has more closely mirrored a midmajor than that of a Pac-12 powerhouse.

Most interesting to me is the question of what enabled them to do so.

First, I think it’s clear now that mental toughness is a hallmark of Mike Leach programs. These aren’t just empty platitudes:

Put another way, that’s:

  1. Fight for the guy next to you.
  2. Worry about yourself.
  3. Worry about yourself.

The word culture gets tossed around a lot, but when you see the way WSU came back from its 2-2 record in 2015 to win nine games overall; when you see the way WSU came back from starting 0-2 the next season (including its second consecutive season-opening embarrassment at the hands of an FCS opponent) to reel off eight consecutive wins; and when you see the way they rebounded from their first two regular-season losses last year with resounding victories (including over 15th-ranked Stanford) ... I mean, it’s hard not to see a pattern even before you throw last Saturday into the mix. These guys somehow aren’t fazed by what would seem to be obvious distractions to their level of play.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Wyoming
Gardner Minshew was pretty darned good.
Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, they haven’t been perfect over the years. There were few times they did wilt, including every time they played Washington and in each of the past two bowl games. But I think, on balance, this program has proven itself to be pretty dang tough, and I think maybe I was wrong to concude that toughness either left with the guys who graduated or could be sabotaged by a series of events ranging from merely upsetting to incredibly tragic.

Additionally, at the risk of drawing sweeping conclusions on the sample size of one game, and at the risk of falling into some confirmation bias, it sure looks like Gardner Minshew is everything Leach said he would be.

Minshew was in total command of offense from start to finish, even if his mechanics got a little wonky in the second quarter, leading to seven consecutive incompletions — including an ill-advised throw under pressure that led to an interception — while Wyoming stormed back into the lead.

His demeanor never changed, and he went on to complete 22 of his final 27 passes for 191 yards and two touchdowns. In the second half, WSU gained 247 yards overall at a clip of 6.5 yards per play — not exactly setting the world on fire, but pretty good against what most people agree is a pretty good defense, and very nice when compared to the 3.7 yards per play in the preceding half.

It’s easy to sit here and play armchair psychologist, and ascribe some level of WSU’s team “toughness” on Saturday to the guy playing quarterback. But don’t you have to? There were times last season when we saw the team fall apart because the quarterback fell apart. That could have easily happened again on Saturday; that it didn’t is at least partially attributable to Minshew. I wrote this about him before the season, and after whiffing so spectacularly on my game pick, I think I might have actually gotten this one right:

Minshew is unlikely to be a program savior — his history and expiring eligibility suggest that’s beyond his reach. But his charisma and leadership ability might very well make him the right guy at the right time for this particular team as it seeks to reach a fourth consecutive bowl game while simultaneously trying to put the pieces back together after a disastrous offseason.

So far, so good.

What We Liked

NCAA Football: Washington State at Wyoming Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

Two numbers: 101 and 0.

The first is the number of rushing yards gained by WSU’s three running backs, James Williams (82), Max Borghi (14), and Keith Harrington (5).

The second is the number of sacks given up.

Both of those speak well of the play of an offensive line that replaced three starters. New right tackle Abraham Lucas — all 6-foot-7 and 320 pounds of him — comported himself particularly well, I thought. He had one holding penalty that was completely bogus, and I don’t remember a time when his man was the one generating any kind of pressure on Minshew.

Shoutout also to Liam Ryan and Josh Watson (who started and appears to have leapfrogged Robert Valencia at right guard), the other two newbies who were responsible (with incumbent center Fred Mauigoa) for the push that led to many of those rushing yards on inside runs.

It should also be noted that Minshew deserves some of the credit for those zero sacks; no offensive line is going to give their quarterback all day to throw for 57 dropbacks, and Minshew did a good job getting rid of the ball in front of the rush a few times and also extending a few plays with his legs. It got him into trouble once, but that’s a trade-off I’ll gladly take.

Honorable mention to running up the score in the fourth quarter. Man, I love putting it on someone.

Who Impressed

I was super impressed with the defensive line, particularly Dominic Silvels. Those guys spent a fair amount of time the Cowboys’ backfield, and the one-dimensional Wyoming attack struggled to move the ball consistently — some of the large chunks the defense gave up were a result of bad tackling at the second level.

I’m still a little skeptical of how they’ll perform going forward, as the Cowboys are nobody’s idea of a great offense. Life is a lot easier when there’s zero threat of a competent passing game. Still, considering our fears going into the game, it was a strong performance.

What Needs Work

Ah, special forces — it’s like it doesn’t actually matter who is coaching you! That rough patch in the 2nd quarter would have been a lot less rough without a bad snap, a delay of game penalty on the free kick, and then a kick out of bounds.

However, for as frustrating as that was, it was certainly offset by Blake Mazza nailing both of his field goals and Oscar Draguicevich looking like an honest-to-goodness punter.

Let’s just not ever put Draguicevich in a situation again where he feels compelled to try and pass the ball to a teammate near the goal line. Thank goodness he was already on his back and in the end zone.

Up Next!

The best part of beating up on Wyoming in the opener is that the team is now 1-0 coming home to open up Martin Stadium by taking on one of the worst teams in all of FBS: the San Jose State Spartans.

The Spartans opened their season by losing at home to UC Davis. UC Davis is not an FBS school, and was in fact picked to finish ninth in the Big Sky. Now, maybe it’s not wise to read too much into a season-opening loss to a team anticipated to be a Big Sky also ran (cough cough), but ... yeah, there’s a pretty good chance SJSU is the worst team WSU will see all season.

The Aggies threw for 446 yards on 57 attempts against the Spartans. That sound you hear is the drool hitting the floor as Leach and Minshew watch video of SJSU.

Kickoff is slated for 8 p.m. PT. Pace yourself at your tailgate, and come prepared to honor Tyler Hilinski as we should.