Victory: 3rd teamers deliver No. 9 for Ol' Wazzu

PULLMAN --Oh, those confounding Cougars. Just when you think that nettlesome penchant for penalties and home field turnovers will finally bite them in the rear, the cavalry arrives to save the day. Today against Arizona State, the bugle was sounded by a most unlikely pair of crimson soldiers.

Pat Bennett, the junior outside linebacker from tiny Forks, Wash., and Josh Swogger, the second-year freshman from Youngstown, Ohio, were third-stringers when the season began. Injuries up the depth chart propelled them into prime time, and they used the opportunity to propel WSU from a 10-10 second quarter tie to a 34-19 victory.

The win, WSU's ninth of the season, keeps the No. 8 Cougars a half-game ahead of USC atop the Pac-10 and qualifies them for a BCS bowl invitation. That means a victory in next week's Apple Cup can all-but-secure a second-straight trip to Pasadena on January 1, either as the outright conference champion should USC lose one of its final two games or as co-champion if the Trojans advance to the national championship game.

But on this day, with wounded Matt Kegel and the Cougar offense struggling mightily and the rock-solid defense looking vulnerable over the middle and on the ground, Huskies and bowl games were the least of the Cougars' worries.

And then, with five minutes left in the first half and Sun Devil QB Andrew Walter looking for a first down, Bennett drifted left, extended his arms and took off to the races. With a final block at the 10 courtesy of D.D. Acholonu, Bennett had himself a 39-yard interception return for a touchdown and WSU had a lead it would never relinquish.

If Bennett, starting in place of injured Al Genatone and Scott Davis, looked comfortable carrying the ball, it was no illusion. During a remarkable prep career, he rushed for 5,420 yards and 65 TDs.

"I knew he was going to throw it there, so I just tried to sneak out there a little bit and he threw it right to me," Bennett said of his second career interception. "I was surprised he didn't see me, actually. After that it was a big blur. I just took it to the house. I didn't even know what I was doing."

After Acholonu posted his second sack of the day -- and 10th of the season -- on ASU's next series, it was Swogger's turn to shine.

Taking possession at the WSU 46, Swogger looked poised, fleet of foot and strong of arm as he led the Cougars on an eight-play scoring drive that included a 21-yard laser to Scott Lunde, a bulldozing quarterback sneak for a first down and, utlimately, a picture-perfect 22-yard strike to Devard Darling in the endzone. Cougars 27, Devils 10.

WHILE THE SUN gave way to rain midway through the proceedings, and the momentum of the second quarter didn't carry into the third, the enthusiastic crimson partisans who watched 22 Cougar seniors play their final home game couldn't help but think the future was so bright they needed to grab the Foster Grants.

That optimism stemmed, of course, from the prospects for the immediate future: A chance to win 10 games for a third-straight season and another potential shot at the Granddaddy of Them All.

But more so, the smiles abounded because Swogger appears more than capable of continuing Wazzu's legacy of signal calling excellence. He completed 14 of 20 passes for 206 yards and a TD, spreading the ball among six different receivers and hitting virtually every quadrant of the field. He was unflappable under pressure, comfortable making checks at the line.

And to think the man who was supposed to be Kegel's understudy this season, sophomore Chris Hurd, is expected to be fully recovered from knee surgery come spring time.

Could be a battle royale shaping up.

But not today. Center stage belonged to Swogger.

"He throws like Ryan Leaf, runs like Jason Gesser and seems to have a Jack Thompson-esque calm about him. He really showed something out there today," said CF.C senior editor John Witter.

Said former Cougar coach Jim Walden, "He was super ... We have a guy who can play and beat anyone we have left to play."

When the Devils narrowed the lead to eight early in the fourth quarter, Swogger didn't flinch. After an ASU field goal, he promptly guided the Cougars on an eight play, 80-yard drive that Jermaine Green ccapped with a 15-yard scoring run that pretty much sealed the victory.. Swogger was 3 of 3 passing on the drive. Two of those completions -- 24 yards and then 19 yards, both to Lunde -- were in third-and-long situations.

"I felt pretty cool and calm out there. I studied hard this week and watched a lot of game film. I felt really comfortable in the pocket. The learning process is coming along really well for me," said Swogger, who learned he was going into the game when Kegel came over to tell him his knee and shoulder weren't cooperating.

ERIK THE GREAT, PART 2: Erik Coleman, a week after being named national defensive player of the week, continued to work his magic against ASU. He set up WSU's first TD, a one-yard run by Jonathan Smith, by blocking a Devil punt in the first quarter.

DEVARD'S RETURN: Junior receiver Devard Darling, shut out against UCLA a week ago, caught 5 passes for 108 yards and a TD against ASU. He earned ABC-TV's Cougar player of the game award. Darling's TD was the 17th of his career; one more and he ties Deron Pointer and Nian Taylor for No. 2 on WSU career TDs list.

OFFENSIVE OUTPUT: The Cougars piled up an unofficial 402 yards of total offense, and for the second week in a row its running game, in the deep freeze much of the season, netted more than 100 yards. Smith led the way with 58 net yards on 16 carries.

TACKLING LEADERS: Middle linebacker Don Jackson continued his end-of-year rampage, posting 11 total tackles against the Devils to lead the Cougar cause. Will Derting had 10, followed by Coleman with seven, Jason David with six and Isaac Brown with five, including a sack.

NEXT WEEK: The Cougars and Huskies kickoff at 3:30 PT in Husky Stadium. The game will be televised live by Fox Sports Net.

Drew Dunning's two field goals today -- the 63rd and 64th of his career -- moved him past Jason Hanson in WSU's record book for most career treys. Dunning needs eight points to pass Hanson atop WSU's career scoring list.

Acholonu's two sacks against the Devils moved him to within 2.5 stops of Keith Millard on WSU's career Tackles For Loss list. Acholonu, the pride of Inglemoor High, has 37. Millard is No. 2 all-time at 39.5. Palouse Posse legend DeWayne Patterson is No. 1 at 52.5 TFLs.

WSU's last four touchdown drives in the UCLA game and first touchdown drive vs. Arizona State game combined to take just 1:24 of clock time.

The Cougs' 9-2 start this season is the fifth-best for a WSU team through 10 games. The best start was 9-0 in 1930. Three Cougar teams started 9-1 -- last season's, the 2001 club and the 1997 squad.

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