PULLMAN — The Washington State Cougars were so dominant Saturday night – or, depending on your perspective, the Idaho Vandals were so pathetic Saturday night – that a large chunk of the homecoming crowd left the football game early to . . . who knows? Beat the Pullman traffic?
The early departees missed all the excitement and drama that was missing from the first three hours of a game once known as the Battle of the Palouse, but is now recognized for what it has become: A cash grab for Idaho, and a yawn-inducing victory for WSU.
There was no yawning at the very end. Not when the Cougars staged a marvelous goal-line stand to preserve their first shutout since the forward pass was invented – well, since 2003 – and not when a neighborly feud broke out for all to see at midfield immediately after the 42-0 score became final.
The post-game handshake between coaches Paul Petrino of Idaho and Mike Leach of Washington State was icier than a bikini-clad Kate Upton photo shoot in Antarctica.
Petrino, one would surmise, was not enthralled with Leach’s decision to leave star quarterback Connor Halliday in the game long after the score had become uglier than a Nick Nolte mug shot. Petrino’s mood did not improve when his young, winless team was unable to score on any of seven snaps of the ball that took place after Idaho advanced to the Cougars’ 7-yard line in the waning moments.
No doubt Petrino was not pleased when some WSU defensive starters returned from an early night off to shore things up at the truly bitter end. When Petrino briefly expressed his opinion of the night’s events to Leach at midfield, Leach appeared to briefly express his opinion of Petrino by using at least one of those words that mama taught you to never say in public.
Hey, who says there’s no life left in the WSU-Idaho rivalry?
The really juicy part is, not only are the schools neighborly rivals separated by just 8 miles, but Leach and Petrino are neighbors of sorts, since Petrino made the interesting decision to buy a home in Pullman after he was hired by Idaho last winter.
That’s Pullman, WASHINGTON, Paul. Your school is in Moscow, IDAHO. Hence, the name of your employer.
Anyway, neither coach had much to offer for public consumption regarding their verbal fireworks.
“That would be strictly between he and I,” said Leach, speaking like the lawyer he once trained to be. “Anything said between us would be private, so we’ll leave it at that.”
“They just kicked our butt,” Petrino said. “They beat us. You have to give them credit.”
Yeah, but Petrino clearly wanted to do no such thing. Still, any football coach had to be impressed with WSU’s goal-line stand at the end, when Idaho could not score even after the ball was moved to the 2-yard line when Leach drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for excessive barking about a roughing-the-passer call. In fact, Leach appeared to aim the same one-syllable obscenity at the refs that he later directed at Petrino.
Not that Leach’s players seemed to mind.
“You know what really got us going was Coach Leach,” safety Deone Bucannon said. “He gets us fired up, and if the coach is fired up, we better be fired up.
“It’s just nice to know you’ve got a coach like that.”
Leach, in turn, is grateful to have a player like Bucannon. And Halliday. And an increasing number of Cougars who have become staunch believers in Leach’s way of doing things.
Leach, hailed as an offensive guru prior to his arrival at Washington State last season, has watched his team score 40-plus points the past two weeks against over-matched, second-tier foes Southern Utah and Idaho. That is not nearly surprising as the new-found stinginess of a WSU defense that has struggled mightily in recent years.
“I was really, really proud of them,” Leach said of WSU’s defensive players after the shutout.
Halliday added, “The defense played unbelievable . . . Coach Breske (defensive coordinator Mike Breske) has done a heck of a job coaching them up.”
Far more good coaching and good playing will be needed in coming weeks, now that the Cougars have finished non-conference play. The Cougars (3-1), riding their first three-game winning streak since 2006, take on fifth-ranked Stanford (3-0) Saturday in WSU’s annual quasi-home game at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field.
“As long as we go in there and make plays – make routine plays – we’ll be fine,” wide receiver Gabe Marks said.
Actually, the Cougars will have to make plenty of plays well beyond routine to knock off Stanford for the first time since 2007. Halliday eagerly awaits the challenge.
“Nobody lives to play, you know, Southern Utah,” Halliday said with typical candor after passing for 346 yards and four touchdowns against Idaho. “Nobody lives to play something like that.
“You live to play the top five teams in the nation. That’s where you can become something that they can say, ‘Hey, that’s where the Cougars turned their thing around. They got a good win. It was the 2013 Cougars that started that.’”
Time will tell if Leach started something with Idaho that will fester for years to come. With all due respect to the Vandals and (maybe) Petrino, he’s far more concerned about keeping the Cougars moving forward on the long road back to respectability.
So far, so good this season. Saturday’s goal-line stand may prove symbolic of The New Cougars.
“I almost wanted to get out there on defense and help them,” Marks said, “that’s how bad I wanted to stop them.”
“We felt that we deserved the shutout,” said Bucannon, who returned to the game late. “We looked each other in the eye. We made a decision: ‘We’re not going to let them in our end zone.’”
Mission accomplished. Perhaps it was only fitting, since it was homecoming and Pullman is home sweet home for the Cougars. Right, Petrino?