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The Monday After: WSU’s coming out party

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This very well could be the moment we point to when the Cougars arrived to crash big boy college football.

Brandon Rose

Like many of you, I got up at an ungodly hour on Saturday in order to take in ESPN College GameDay’s live broadcast from the shadow of Martin Stadium, unsuccessfully tried to recharge by taking a nap, spent the afternoon wandering to various tailgates, seeing some of my favorite people on the planet before losing my got-dang mind over the whipping my fellas were putting on the No. 12 team in the country.

Then, like most of you, I spent virtually the entire second half of Saturday’s game giving myself an ulcer, stressing out about the Washington State Cougars’ rapidly vanishing 27-point halftime lead over the Oregon Ducks.

When Jalen Thompson’s final pass breakup meant it was effectively over, I took in the ensuing kneel downs with a smile, finally allowing myself to breathe deeply for the first time in what seemed like an hour and half.

Shortly after Gardner Minshew II (finally) dropped his knee to the turf on first down, the quarterback turned to the crowd and waved his hands, imploring the crowd to celebrate with him — which, of course, it did: Loudly, and without hesitation.

Then something caught my eye.

Keith Harrington — who was one of the protectors in front of Minshew — started to do a little dance. I can’t describe it. TV didn’t catch it. I don’t think there’s video of it anywhere on Twitter or Instagram. And goodness knows this 41-year-old white dude can’t even think about replicating it.

The best I can do is say that this dance was filled with a pure, palpable, unadulterated joy. And I thought to myself: Here’s a guy who is a fifth-year senior, whose finest on-field moments came four years ago, who gets about, ... what ... 10 meaningful plays a game, mostly on special teams? And he’s soaking it in as much as anyone out there?

For the first time, a little tear started to well up in my eye, as I thought of all the work the players put in to overcome the Offseason From Hell that went into that moment.

Somehow, these guys had to appropriately work through their grief over the death of Tyler Hilinski while simultaneously preparing themselves for on-field success. Minshew was a sliver away from using his final year of eligibility as essentially a graduate assistant at Alabama. Harrington surely could have transferred at any point over the last couple of seasons and played more elsewhere. James Williams and Max Borghi watched the man who recruited them jump ship and join the other sideline. Peyton Pelluer returned from a broken foot to join a depleted defense that everyone else expected to be ... challenged. Pelluer and Nick Begg discovered Hilinski’s body. And there surely are countless other stories I’m not aware of.

There was Minshew:

NCAA Football: Oregon at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

There was Pelluer:

NCAA Football: Oregon at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

There they all were, victorious, surrounded by this — pure, unadulterated joy x 10,000:

It was the perfect ending to a day that seemed to be a culmination of so many incredible things — most obviously, the 15 years of Ol’ Crimson traveling all over the country. The scene at the GameDay set was surreal and lived up to every last expectation I had for the event. It even exceeded it in certain ways.

For one thing, the whole GameDay experience just felt ... big time. Beyond the visitation from the quasi-celebrities of the ESPN television show and the giant set, it’s not hyperbole to say that, for the first day ever, little Pullman, Washington, was the center of the sports universe. Ratings of the morning show were 17 percent higher year over year, and the game was on a national broadcast channel during prime time on the east coast. (I haven’t found the national numbers for the game, but we know that it drew more viewers in the Seattle area than the lead-in game between the Washington Huskies and Colorado Buffaloes.)

And for the first time, I really reflected on all the ways in which WSU athletics has been transformed in the 20 years since the Cougs made their unlikely run to the 1998 Rose Bowl during my college years. It’s not just the facilities, although they are the most prominent evidence; it’s the branding around the various athletic complexes, the little touches here and there that just give everything a professional feel that was lacking for so long from a so-called backwoods university in the middle of nowhere. There’s also the ongoing financial commitment from the university, which maybe hasn’t been the most fiscally responsible thing to do, but is absolutely what allowed Saturday to happen.

On a personal level, I thought back to the last 10 years of CougCenter. Did you know it’s been 10 years? We had plans to make a little bit of a thing out of our 10th birthday back in August, but like so many of our greatest ideas, it didn’t quite make it all the way to the finish line. I spent a lot of my Saturday with the guys who make this happen (in order of appearance): Brian Floyd, Brian Anderson, Kevin Dudley, Michael Preston, PJ Kendall, Scott Cresswell, Craig Powers, Kyle Sherwood. Some of these guys have become my closest friends, and all of them make it more fun to do what we do around here.

There were times in the first few years of this site that nobody would have faulted us for closing up shop; after all, we launched just a couple of weeks before Paul Wulff’s first game. We had to invent all kinds of crazy shit to entertain ourselves, because goodness knows there was almost quite literally nothing taking place on the field worth writing about. But we did what good Cougs do: We laughed, we comisserated, we vented, and — yes — we drank.

And now, here we are — 10 years later, one of just a couple of places WSU fans can go everyday for news and analysis about their favorite team, covering the first span of four consecutive bowls in the history of the program. The traffic we did last week puts any other non-Apple Cup week in our site’s history to shame. It’s so, so cool to be a part of that with you, even if we don’t get to do hard-hitting analysis like this anymore:

A couple of days removed from it all, I still can’t shake the feeling that maybe Saturday will be the day we point to as the moment WSU truly arrived as a big-time football school. There surely will be some who will laugh at that notion, but when you put on the party we did with 20,000 or so people at a time when most of our side of the country was still in bed, and then pack Martin Stadium seven hours later to help your football team slap around the No. 12 team by a couple of touchdowns — for the 11th consecutive win at home, and the fourth consecutive win against this particular team — you don’t have to squint real hard to see this as a coming out party for both the program and the fanbase, the point at which we can now say this is more than just an uptick, more than just a run of good form for the program. This is what the program now is.

All eyes were on our town. And we didn’t disappoint. On any front.

Note to our Pac-12 brethren: Take WSU lightly going forward at your own peril.


Bonus display of pure, unadulterated joy that I couldn’t figure out how to fit into the preceding narrative


What We Liked

Oregon v Washington State Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

We’ve used the word resiliency with this team a lot, to the point where maybe it’s becoming cliche. But, once again, there the team was, taking someone else’s best shot and figuring out a way to come out on top.

I mentioned earlier that I felt like I was getting an ulcer when I was watching it live. But when I rewatched it, I was surprised by how it felt like WSU was still in a great position, even as Oregon was starting to do its Oregon thing. It’s not like the wheels fell off in the third quarter; the defense was just a couple of plays away from repeatedly thwarting Oregon, and even so, the Cougs bowed up in the red zone. The Ducks really had to make some plays just to do what they did — there were three throws by Herbert that were absolutely inch perfect to create conversions. He’s 100 percent as advertised.

But it also felt like the WSU offense wasn’t going to stall forever, that at some point the passing attack was going to adjust to Oregon’s second-half strategies (more on that in a moment). It happened, and the Cougs tacked on an insurance TD that it turned out they didn’t even need anyway.

Put another way: WSU scored enough points in the first half to win the game outright.

Oregon was going to give the Cougars their best shot at some point. But these guys just won’t wilt.


Who Impressed?

NCAA Football: Oregon at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The only suitable answer here, really, is everyone.

I chuckled today when the Pac-12 player of the week awards came out and the Utah Utes swept them. Usually at least one of the awards goes to someone on a team that picked up the biggest win of the week. But these things are stat driven, and nobody from WSU had a particularly noteworthy game from that perspective.

It truly was the consummate team performance. Minshew wasn’t perfect, but he did enough. There were a couple of times where his receivers really picked him up, although none of them cracked the 100-yard barrier. The offensive line was its dominant self in pass protection. The defense swarmed, with 12 players making two or more tackles. Seven different players had a hand in tackles for a loss, including Karson Block. I bet, for most of you, Saturday was the first time you ever heard his name.

Touching on the theme in the opener, it’s just wild to look at how far WSU has come. There were years where Oregon blistering our butts was simply an inevitability. Sure, we’d hang around a little while, but it was only a matter of time before they popped one (or four) massive plays and that was that.

On Saturday, you looked down on the field, and you saw this:

And this:

AND THIS:

Oregon had Justin Herbert and Dillon Mitchell, both of whom made some spectacular plays and were every bit as good as we thought. But we had ... everyone. We had dudes making plays all over. Nobody had a huge game, because we didn’t need that like Oregon did. And once Mitchell — who actually only had 47 yards receiving, if you can believe that — ran out of gas in the fourth quarter, the Ducks were done.

We’re just getting started.


What Needs Work?

One irritating development this season is the frequency with which Minshew’s passes are now getting knocked down at the line of scrimmage. It’s not accidental; teams are finding themselves unable to generate much of a pass rush, so they hang back, watch Minshew’s eyes, and try to get their arms into the passing lanes of the short passes.

I don’t know how WSU can compensate, if it can at all. Minshew’s only listed and 6-foot-2 and is probably an inch shorter than that. This is probably going to be an ongoing thing, particularly if the line keeps stonewalling people. But it sure is annoying, as incompletions put WSU behind the sticks — a place they’ve been pretty good at avoiding.

Dishonorable mention: Rush integrity. There were a number of times where the pass rush looked undisciplined, with interior linemen running themselves out of a space and allowing Herbert space to buy time. It got better late, resulting in an important sack. We’ll have to do better next week; K.J. Costello is nobody’s ideal running QB, but he’s slippery and athletic enough that he’ll make us pay if we do that again.


Up Next!

NCAA Football: Stanford at Arizona State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

After such an emotional weekend, WSU could be primed for a letdown traveling to the Stanford Cardinal on Saturday. Not only is WSU coming off an emotional high and traveling, the Cardinal played on Thursday, which means two extra days of rest.

But here’s what I know: Stanford isn’t as good as WSU, and the Cougs have more or less lit them up offensively the last three seasons. David Shaw’s staff simply hasn’t had a good answer for the Air Raid in some time.

And on the flip side, the Cardinal’s offense is ... kinda just ok. They do have some dangerous weapons at receiver; they’re big and physical and they’ll provide a completely different challenge for this group of DBs. But Bryce Love is hobbled (as he was last year, only probably worse this year), and KJ Costello is inconsistent and prone to giving up sacks.

Again, this is a game WSU should win. But in order to do so, they’ll need to get over the euphoria of Saturday in a hurry. Kickoff is at 4 p.m. PT on Pac-12 Network.


SIDE NOTE: See the photo at the top? The amazing gentleman who took it is giving it away for free. You can download your own hi-res copy for printing here. What a guy! Go Cougs!