Labor Day weekend, 2006. The deciduous leaves were turning prematurely, and students are relishing in their first three day weekend after a few weeks of class.
Dissmores was empty half an hour before kick off, no one was in the streets; the Cougs were going against an SEC opponent that was ranked #4 in the nation. The Coug faithful who were lucky enough to get to Auburn, Alabama relate tales of friendly southerners, welcoming the crimson and gray into their tailgate parties with beer and ribs. “Well, quite frankly, we’ve never played y’all before, so we can’t hate you yet, here’s another beer. (Y’all want some moonshine?)”.
The Cougs scored on a two yard Alex Brink pass to Jason Hill (tough not to miss those two, right?) 13 minutes into the game, putting the Cougs up following the PAT. When Hill caught that pass, Pullman erupted. From Military, to College, to Sunnyside, and to Education Hills, the town roared, a sound that could not be matched by Martin Stadium, Wazzu became the epicenter of fandom in Eastern Washington. The defense held the Tigers without a TD until about 5 minutes in the 2nd Quarter. There are the highlights, and that’s okay.
WSU held in with the mighty SEC, if only for a half. A vastly different Auburn team will be greeting the Cougs tomorrow. The tailgaters will not be so congenial, the blinding liquor will not be offered, their dominance is not guaranteed, the War Eagle does not perch atop the SEC. Who can blame them at this point in history? Imagine if Washington had won three out of four National Championships (oh yeah, Wazzu won the fourth). Imagine the Palouse home to Heisman Winners, and then dealing with the shame of only three wins for the second time in sixty years. We would lose any hope of hospitality to our SEC cream puff guests.
Mike Leach was bamboozled when asked about his previous matchup with Auburn’s defensive look, and defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson. That result was an (apparently forgotten) achievement for Leach that would be an important stride in his vault out of the SEC utilizing Tim Couch as proof that he could turn a mediocre QB into a star (Remember Couch? Ryan Leaf is constantly being thrown the collective throat of Wazzu fans, but Couch was #1 overall. If Peyton Manning was a year older, and the child from Great Falls’ development had been in the hands of Jim Mora instead of Kevin Gilbride . . ?).
Anyhow, if Leach had not succeeded that day, he might not have landed the job in Buddy Holly Town, thus putting himself (not Mike Price) in line for the Alabama Head Coaching position following the 2002 season, and creating a strange alternate universe in Pullman where the Bill Doba and Paul Wulff eras never happened.
More importantly for today, Elliott has made his mark with a poorly designed 4-2-5 defense. Hopefully Mike Breske is looking at his linebackers and realizing that this set up is entirely logical given his current roster. Let the small backers play as a SS, and add a tackle. The DL has bulked up beyond what we could have expected, Breske should utilize that.
Speaking of size. The Wazzu line is getting stronger, bigger, and Leach is starting to attract the talent to play here. Any poll amongst o-linemen will tell you they prefer to play a run game. We saw that frustration become apparent last year when we saw an obvious need for a short yardage and a periodic eat up the clock ground game. With any luck, Leach has implemented a rudimentary system of small split sets that can ensure at least 2:00 off the clock in the fourth quarter.
News from New York’s Upstate NFL team, leans to Jeff Tuel, an indefinite starter 365 days ago, being the starting QB for the Buffalo Bills in nine days. It is worth listening to this ESPN podcast to hear what the nation is saying about Tuel (4:00, max, I promise). At least they gave us a “Wazzu” and identified Tuel’s alma matre correctly. Jeff has the chance to succeed despite every logical hope. Let us collectively send our leftover prayers of victory towards the Eastern Shore of Lake Erie, and remember these six men, who have won ten Super Bowls after being drafted in low rounds: Bart Starr (17th Round), Johnny Unitis (9th Round), Roger Staubach (10th Round), Mark Rypien (yes, a Canuck Coug, 6th Round), Tom Brady (10th Round), and of course Kurt Warner (UNDRAFTED). Yes, young Jeffery, make history, and give seemingly middling quarterbacks a hope.
Leach has brought some new plays to the board. Last year could have been opossum. Captain Mike playing pirate, hiding somewhere in the bays of Carolina, amassing an arsenal that the Pac-12 is not prepared for. Keep an eye on Galvin or Caldwell on deep plays, watch for true freshman River Cracroft to de-cleat someone on a block. On defense, watch the line: Breske will be dropping ends into the flats frequently, and some double stunts freeing the linebackers on a blitz will be key to throwing off what could be an incredibly shaky offense.
This is the time of year that those who live in the periphery of Cougar Nation to keep our eyes out. Honk at those gorgeous new crimson license plates and dust off (if only as an offering to the elements) your Wazzu flags, and send good will to anyone in crimson. Smile at that stranger in familiar clothes, because there are no more warming words than “Go Cougs!”