WSU

Cougs exemplify ‘next man up’ in win, season

IN THE PENULTIMATE GAME of the regular season, Washington State (8-3, 6-2 Pac-12) defeated Colorado (4-8, 1-7 Pac-12) by a final score of 27-3. Certainly that is cause for celebration all across Cougar Nation. Just as certainly, it was tempered by the uncertainty surrounding star quarterback Luke Falk.

Unlike last week, when Cool Hand Luke was able to shake off the effects of getting thrown to the turf, Falk was taken off the field of Martin Stadium on a cart and reportedly, ESPN said, transported to the hospital for tests.

“Next man up” Peyton Bender entered the game to replace a guy who had turned heads across the nation with the video game stats facilitated by Leach’s Air Raid offense.

Result?

Bender showed a firm grasp on the WSU offense, with a twinge of inexperience slowing his leading an assault on the Buffs. The second-year freshman looked more Pac-12 starter than backup guy. Unfortunately for Bender, Leach dialed back his aggressive play calling to give his “next man up” and the team the best opportunity to succeed.

Bender delivered a solid passing performance racking up 133 yards through the air by completing 13 of 22 attempts. Sure, there was a forced pass that was tipped and intercepted. Another should have been picked off. Those things should be expected in conference play when a quarterback is near the beginning of the learning curve.

What Bender didn’t do: He didn’t look unprepared to run the Washington State offense. Fact is, he looked like a well-coached player prepared to do his job.

With WSU reaching the eight-win mark for the first time since 2003, that was the story for Cougar fans: Next man up.

Leach was brought to Pullman to rebuild and return Washington State football to the relatively recent glory days of 2001-03 when the Cougs won 10 games in three consecutive seasons. Saturday night at Martin Stadium with the temperature below freezing, Cougar football exemplified the “next man up” concept, a necessary ingredient to any significant climb up the Pac-12 and college football ladder.

It was fitting that on senior night in Pullman the path to WSU’s eighth win of the season would be facilitated by several guys asked to step in and step up. Colorado was simply overmatched -- by what actually is a work in progress in terms of a Leach-coached football team.

For left tackle Andre Dillard and center Sam Flor, they answered the call to start on the offensive line for the first time in 2015 (and for Dillard his first start ever). Prepared and physically ready, both players melded into a unit performing at a high level. Tthey seamlessly became part of a 2015 Cougar lineup that has learned what it takes to win at the Pac-12 level.

That was the difference between the play of Colorado and WSU: The Cougs, even when backups are called upon, still know what it takes to win. The Buffs are still working on that lesson.

So how did Dillard and Flor fare when looking at the cold, hard numbers?

The Cougar offense garnered a total of 481 yards, racking up 30 first downs in the process. They reached the Colorado red zone five times coming away with five scores: three touchdowns and two field goals.

Gerard Wicks rushed for 123 yards. No one wearing crimson and gray had crossed the 100-yard benchmark since James Montgomery tallied 116 hashes against Montana State back in 2010.

The offensive line.  “Next man up.” Check.

Wicks’ stellar performance has been coming for a while now, such is the third-year sophomore’s improvement from his rookie on-field campaign. Still, that he received six of his 13 carries in the fourth quarter is telling. That came about because the top quarterback in the Pac-12, Falk, was knocked down and sent to the sidelines for a second week in a row.

From my chair, Leach and his staff are building a football program that can and will earn postseason invitations for years to come. That observation is based on how the Cougs have played the last seven games. While emerging victorious in six of the last seven, Washington State has transitioned from the Pac-12 cellar, to near the penthouse.

For over a decade Cougar Nation has viewed their team through optimism based in reasoning that if the team plays well they might win on any given day.  No longer. Where they used to hope for wins, now they can expect WSU to play smart and hard for all 60 minutes and doing what it takes to win in the conference of champions.

This team has taken on the character and mentality of their head coach. They work, work, work so that they can seize opportunity when it presents itself.

The 16 seniors honored Saturday night in Pullman will suit up for their final Apple Cup on Friday. Many of them are starters and key contributors. But behind them are teammates ready, willing and able to be the next man up.

To paraphrase the WSU stadium announcing great Glenn Johnson, “And that’s another Cougar victory!”


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