Cougar O-line fulfills Sacajawea promise

THE NAME PRINTED ON THE SHIRT flashed on the screen for only a moment. But it was long enough. When you think back, to even suggest this a few months ago would have gotten you laughed out of the room. But on Saturday against Utah, against the No. 1 sack defense in the nation, Washington State's o-line didn't give up a single one of 'em. The "why" can be traced to a swath of earth in Lewiston.

It's the first drive of the WSU-Utah game and Marcus Mason takes the ball. Center Elliott Bosch gets to the second level and pushes back the linebacker. Mason runs for eight yards. The Cougs will go on to score and take a 7-0 lead. Utah, which entered the game with 36 sacks, was unable to get to Cougar QB Connor Halliday on the drive.

FOR WSU'S FINAL HOME game of the year, sideline reminders were present for the players of how it all began. Some assistant coaches and others on the Washington State side were wearing gear that said "Property of Sacajawea Junior High," with a Cougar logo.

Washington State spent the first 10 days of fall camp in Lewiston, practicing at Sacajawea. The reason given at the time by AD Bill Moos was that because of the Football Ops Building construction, only about half of Rogers Field was available for use.

But it was also about bonding. No distractions. Just football. Just about getting better. And on a team that needed to get better in all areas from the 2012 season, no unit needed to improve more than the Cougar offensive line.

It's the second quarter and the Utes have scored 14 quick points to close to within a touchdown. Utah has mostly been sending four and five men after Halliday, they've also sent seven three times and six once. They still have no sacks. On third-and-seven, left tackle Gunnar Eklund stones his man initially, then slides his feet and redirects the defender's second effort away from Halliday, allowing the WSU QB to eventually find Mason for a 43-yard gain. WSU soon after extends its lead to 24-14.

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THE WORD "PROPERTY" FITS nicely on the t-shirt. The WSU o-line grew up over the course of the season, but the seeds were planted in August in Lewiston. And on Saturday, the WSU offensive line continued its remarkable 2013 turnaround.

Left-to-right, they line up like this: Gunnar Eklund (11 starts); Joe Dahl (11 starts); Elliott Bosch (11 starts); Matt Goetz (6 starts) and RT John Fullington (11 starts).

There's been but one course correction this season, back in Week 6, when Fullington moved from right guard to right tackle, replacing Rico Forbes, and Goetz came in at Fullington's old spot.

There was no such clarity back in those early days at Sacajawea. There were 14 bodies regularly rotating in with the first-team. Cougar o-line coach Clay McGuire was trying to figure out what he had, and how he could make the group a serviceable one given the calamity of the year before. In Lewiston, he did it in a variety of ways.

There were three drills McGuire ran the o-line through repeatedly at Sacajawea during those dog days of summer -- drills they hadn't run in Leach and McGuire's first year in Pullman.

McGuire had the offensive line doing a lot of high-stepping. He also had them jumping rope. What these two endeavors did was to improve and identify agility. And where that paid dividends was in the Cougs' wide splits up front.

That was big. But it wasn't as big as the third drill that was deployed.

WSU leads Utah 24-14 and right tackle John Fullington is on an island, no other Cougar o-lineman is within five yards of him. It's just Fullington and the Utah pass rusher, one on one. The d-end tries to fake Fullington inside and then blast by outside. But Fullington stays with him, looking like his mirror image. Fullington is part of a perfect WSU pocket formed around Halliday -- no pass rusher gets anywhere close to the WSU quarterback as he lobs a 31-yard touch pass to Kristoff Williams. WSU scores three plays later to take a 30-14 lead. Utah has sent seven men crashing into the WSU offensive line four times this game, and eight another time. They have yet to register a sack.

BACK IN LEWISTON, McGUIRE WAS at his most demonstrative when it came to one-on-one protection. This was the drill in Lewiston:

A walk on quarterback, (or another walk on who wasn't otherwise engaged at the moment), was given the football -- but he was to do nothing but stand stock-still. An offensive lineman stands in front of the QB, facing off against a d-lineman, often an end. Mano-a-mano. No one on your left or right to help, just the offensive lineman and the pass rusher. The whistle blew.

Take care of business, usually it was about 4-6 seconds between whistles, and you win. Fail, and the OL and the offense lose.

Every time they ran that one-on-one drill at Sacajawea, McGuire was animated and vocal. It was where he was his most critical -- and his most laudatory. The offensive linemen had to prove themselves individually. It was more than just contact, an offensive lineman's technique in that setting needed to be flawless, and also for a good number of seconds that surely must have felt like days.

It's midway through the third quarter and Utah has seized the momentum, coming off an easy score and the Utes are within six points. WSU must find a way to stare down adversity's face and recapture Ol' Mo. On the first play of the drive, Utah keeps six men in the box. Right guard Matt Goetz doubles on the d-tackle, which allows Bosch to head to the second level. That in turn lets the Cougs cut off two other would-be pursuers from the right. Once Mason breaks through the line of scrimmage on the left side, no one from the right side is within five yards of him. As Mason crosses the line of scrimmage, the Utah d-line and LBs have been pushed between 1-6 yards downfield. Mason gallops for 50 yards. WSU pushes the lead back to 42-30 three plays later. On the WSU scoring play, Utah sent seven men crashing into the line after Halliday, but none were within three yards when he unspooled a 13-yard strike to Vince Mayle.

SACAJAWEA'S PRACTICE FIELDS are about what you'd expect from a junior high school -- functional for the most part but aged. This is the kind of place where the ground is uneven in spots, where the grass doesn't always grow back. It's the kind of place that when an offensive lineman gains a nasty scrape, he just rubs some dirt on it.

If you had driven by Sacajawea back in early August, you might not have even noticed the unusual size of the players, that these were BCS student-athletes in search of a turnaround.

And even if you did recognize the Cougar o-linemen, being put through their paces by McGuire, you probably wouldn't have imagined the level of improvement that was in store -- that the Cougar o-line would go from allowing 4.75 sacks per game last season... to 2.0 through 11 games in 2013.

The Cougs are again clinging to a six-point lead against Utah and it's crunch time. Facing third-and-seven with 5:01 left in the game, Utah sends three and drops eight. Left guard Joe Dahl and the line easily stand up and turn back Utah's rush, allowing Halliday to comfortably set up shop. Despite the eight in coverage, Halliday finds Dom Williams on a skinny post and he races 71 yards to the house. It's 49-37 Cougs, and that's how it ends. Utah has rushed seven and eight, they've sent five and four, they've tried dropping eight men into coverage. Nothing worked, as the Cougs' 49 points on the scoreboard attests. Utah finishes the game with the same number of sacks as when they began, even though WSU attempted 62 passes. The Cougs have gained their sixth win and become bowl eligible. Very few pundits before the season predicted they'd have the offensive line to do so.

OUT AT SACAJAWEA, THE FOOTBALL FIELDS have long gone quiet. The school's last regular season football game was back in October. But some three-and-a-half months after they left Sacajawea, the Cougar offensive line was still stirring up the echoes from that place on Saturday at Martin. And now one more piece of regular season business is about to begin ...

You probably wouldn't have predicted headed into the Apple Cup that the Huskies would have allowed more sacks this season (28) than have the Cougs (22).

It's especially striking when you consider this: WSU has attempted 639 passes this season. The UW quarterbacks have thrown 366.

The construction that made it necessary to start fall camp in Lewiston this year will not be in play next August. The WSU offensive line and the rest of the position units can begin and end the 2014 fall camp at home. The Cougs don't have to return to Sacajawea.

They should anyway.

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