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John Blanchette: Washington State keeps closer eye on national scoreboard with each passing week

UPDATED: Sun., Nov. 4, 2018, 5:59 p.m.

PULLMAN – It’s been established: The Pac-12 can’t get out of its own way. So maybe try this, fellas: Get the hell out of Washington State’s.

Oh, wait. It pretty much has.

Now the big question: Will the rest of college football oblige?

The early returns: not so much.

Then again, the Cougars still have some work to do in that area themselves.

Make that considerable work.

But the thrills go on. After spinning their wheels in gumbo for nearly the entire evening Saturday, WSU found traction in the final 160 seconds and beat pesky Cal 19-13 – cardiac stress that surely must have agitated all the dads in the Martin Stadium sellout.

The big fun for the Cougars and their constituency through the first two months of the season has been reveling in the team’s mostly unforeseen excellence, some clutch finishes and the anointing of a real, live folk hero: quarterback Gardner Minshew II. Call him Two, or Too – as in too much. Or too cool for school.

But now there’s a bonus: scoreboard watching. No, really.

This has always been mostly Saturday filler at Wazzu, something for a tailgater to do between trips to the keg or the cooker. West Virginia’s winning? What league are they in now, anyway? Attention to other outposts until now was token at best – unless Washington was losing, of course. Then it was Schadenfreude Uber Alles until the Cougs game kicked off.

And then the College Football Playoff rankings came out this week and, lo, there were the Cougs at No. 8.

Number 8.

Not in some piddly writers’ poll, or a vote of sports information directors – er, coaches, sorry. This is the algebra that’s going to produce the four heavies who will settle the national championship when the clock turns winter, and right there in the sweepstakes is Washington State.

Four steps away.

Now, yes, those four steps could well be the equivalent of hopscotching through the Milky Way. But the deciders are saying there’s a chance.

And so suddenly it matters what everyone else is doing.

OK, not Alabama so much. The Tide are on another plane if not another planet. And maybe not Notre Dame or Clemson unless the Tigers sleep through their alarm for the ACC championship game.

So maybe the chance is for one spot, and the crowd ahead of the Cougars isn’t a bunch of slappies.

Only LSU among the top seven lost on Saturday, and that to Alabama, which makes it sort of a loss with an asterisk. Oklahoma had a bit of a wrangle, but that was about it. Michigan and Georgia both handled victims in the CFP’s top 15.

And the Cougs? Well, they certainly didn’t handle Cal. They merely survived.

But, man, they survived with style.

This time, it took a steely drive of 69 yards that began with 2:39 remaining on the clock, and included spectacular falling catches by Jamire Calvin and Easop Winston, before the Cougars’ fabulist zipped behind Cal’s Josh Drayton and collected a Minshew pass for the winner with 32 seconds remaining.

This one does not go in the steadily improving column, no. Steady nerves, yes.

Because the Cougars had to overcome assorted gaffes and giveaways mostly of their own making, and in the kind of volume that in other seasons has produced the killing. A Minshew interception that led to Cal’s only touchdown. Willie Taylor’s brilliant pick that was undone by his fumble out of the end zone. Eighty yards in penalty pratfalls. And the maddening abandonment of the run, which on a drizzly night helped limit the Cougs to just 17 nonkick snaps during a 29-minute stretch in the heart of the game.

But here in the Conference of Toes for Target Practice, there’s always another team around to one-down you. This night, it was Cal, which had the go-ahead touchdown in its sights with less than 8 minutes to play before being done in by a case of coaching cute.

Married to inserting run specialist Brandon McIlwain at quarterback at odd times for starter Chase Garbers, offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin tried it on first down at the WSU 12 – only to have McIlwain wildly overthrow Patrick Laird on a rollout, allowing the Cougs’ Skyler Thomas to intercept in the end zone.

Baldwin pulled many a rabbit out of his hat with his play calling as Eastern Washington head coach – even against WSU. This time he pulled out a live hand grenade.

The Cougs themselves needed two tries to produce their magic – the first ending in a missed 30-yard field goal. But they solved Cal’s stubborn defense when their reputation and ranking on the line.

The Pac-12’s rep, too. Gad, only the Huskies are within a game of Wazzu in the loss column.

Good thing there’s some scoreboard watching to keep us occupied.

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