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John Blanchette: Washington State has every reason to believe early-season momentum will carry into Pac-12 play

UPDATED: Sat., Sept. 15, 2018

PULLMAN – Carnac here. Take this one to the bank.

So the Washington State Cougars have navigated their minefield of a nonconference schedule – they just took down the heavyweight of the first three weeks, Eastern Washington, in a fun 59-24 shootout-turned-beatdown Saturday to run their record to 3-0.

Now they get a breather: Pac-12 play starts next weekend.

Next stop: 6-0.

No joke. USC hasn’t shown a thing. The Cougs get Utah at home. Oregon State remains Oregon State.

So that’ll set up a big showdown in Pullman on Oct. 20 against Oregon, which by then will have dispatched Stanford, Cal and Washington. Surely that’s when Wazzu’s old buddies at ESPN will finally swoop in and fulfill the singular lust of Cougar fans everywhere: hosting College GameDay.

College football’s ultimate validation!

Or else they’ll pull the old Lucy-holding-for-Charlie-Brown deal and set up in Eugene a week earlier for the Ducks and Huskies. Actually, that seems about right.

Sorry to get your hopes up.

But the 6-0 thing doesn’t seem all that far-fetched, so there is that.

Few truly expected the Cougars to be anything less than winners three times to this point, despite the tragedy and timely transfer at quarterback and the uncertainty along the lines and the general experience erosion. The schedule was set up for that very purpose and under Mike Leach always will be – well, until 2022 anyway.

But perhaps what wasn’t so expected was the Cougars being so convincingly 3-0.

Have there been hiccups? Of course. The Cougs lost interest in beating up San Jose State to their best of their ability, and Leach predictably went into his annual withering assessment of toughness, though at least he didn’t invoke America and participation trophies this year. And against the Eagles, Wazzu took a detour through the third quarter – too late to keep the thirsty migrants from bolting at intermission, but just in time to keep those viewing on Larry TV from lunging for their remotes.

But, hey, mid-September is too early for perfection and besides, Leach always decries trying to be too perfect.

Still, too much good has happened to the Cougs to this point to suspect that good things won’t keep happening, and perhaps confirm Leach’s caution a month or so back that his team might be better than the consensus meh offered up by the pundit class.

Plus, the Pac-12 has a special knack – top to bottom – of not being able to get out of its own way.

Now, that has included the Cougars at the oddest times in recent years, but so far this edition leads the league in taking care of business, even against the overmatched.

“They’re mentality games,” quarterback Gardner Minshew said. “How are you going to attack them? They’re a good team, but they’re FCS and a lot of times you take those for granted. That’s something we decided we weren’t going to do.”

On Saturday, that was crystallized in two ways: not letting Eastern quarterback Gage Gubrud turn the proceedings into a park pickup game as he did in the Eagles’ grand upset two years ago, and cashing in all – well, most – of the opportunities that came Wazzu’s way.

Even when they looked nothing like opportunities.

Before the game was three quarters gone, the Cougars had completed touchdown drives of 68, 83, 98 and 99 yards. Given that the quarterback arrived on campus in May and that there’s exactly one senior among the 38 receivers who seem to get a touch every game, that consistency is beyond remarkable, whether the opponent offers 85 scholarships or 63. Indeed, Minshew connected on all eight of his passes in the 83-yard drive, and all seven in the 99-yarder.

“It almost makes you tempted to spot the ball on the 1,” Leach mused. “But I probably won’t do that.”

Meanwhile, the Cougars made Gubrud ill at ease, to say the least: pressured constantly, lacking command too often, his escape routes clogged. Two years ago, he scored the clinching TD on a 30-yard run; this day, he rushed for minus 3. His quarterback rating – 103.6 – was less than half what it was on that day in 2016, thanks largely to three interceptions.

“We had a better game plan,” linebacker Peyton Pelluer said. “He’s one of the better quarterbacks I’ve seen, but once you get him outside and get pressure on him, he can make mistakes.”

He also doesn’t have the playmakers around him he had then, and it hurt even more when receiver Nsimba Webster didn’t play the second half.

Nevertheless, the Eags were going to have a hard time scoring more than 59.

“It’s just tuning into one another,” Leach insisted. “A lot of the receivers haven’t played many snaps and (Minshew) hasn’t played with them very snaps. So I think that’s started to come together. I hope that’s not too optimistic.”

No worries. Carnac has the optimism market cornered.

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