The past couple of seasons, Washington State has been increasingly adept at avoiding complacency against lesser opponents.
This could be the Cougars’ acid test in that regard.
They’re coming off a 51-point blowout victory, and they’re facing a Football Championship Subdivision opponent projected to finish last in its conference.
You might have to go back 90 years to find a WSU team that opened its season with a bigger pair of theoretical mismatches in its favor — all the way to the 1929 team that began with home games against the College of Idaho and something called Mt. St. Charles. The Cougs won 48-0 and 38-0.
So yes, staying focused for four quarters might be a challenge as Wazzu plays Northern Colorado at 2 p.m. today at Martin Stadium (Pac-12 Network). Betting odds are difficult to track down for FBS vs. FCS matchups, but Pregame.com sees the Cougars as 36 1/2-point favorites, four points higher than last week.
New quarterback Anthony Gordon set new standards for focus in the first half Aug. 31 as he completed his first 15 passes and stood 22-for-23 at halftime of the Cougars’ 58-7 demolition of New Mexico State.
Then he cooled down to 7-for-12 in the second half as he seemingly tried to tune up the Cougs’ vertical game and maybe get the ball to particular receivers who’d been overshadowed earlier. Wazzu led by 41 points when he handed the keys to backups Gage Gubrud and Trey Tinsley.
“I thought it went pretty well in the first half,” Gordon said this week. “Then in the second half, I got a little too aggressive, maybe a little too ambitious on some throws, trying to get a home run rather than a base hit, as coach (Mike) Leach may say sometimes.”
The temptation could arise again as the Cougars face a Big Sky Conference team that went 2-9 last year and gave up 35 points per game.
But like New Mexico State, the Bears of Greeley, Colo., have a capable quarterback. Leach said NMSU’s Josh Adkins “could start at all but three teams in (the Pac-12),” and UNC sixth-year senior Jacob Knipp is considered one of the top talents of the FCS. He’ll probably make the game valuable for WSU’s defense, especially a secondary with three new starters.
The Bears (0-1) are coming off a 35-18 loss Aug. 29 at San Jose State and, like the Cougars, want to avoid impatience on offense. UNC’s 11th-year coach, Earnest Sanders Jr., said his team should have turned more often to a running game led by Milo Hall, a transfer from Wyoming who rushed for 757 yards for UNC last season.
“We have to understand it’s not about the home run, but taking what they give us,” Collins said. “We could have kept running the ball, because they couldn’t stop it. It’s one of those games you could have won and should have won, but we can learn a lot from it.”
Last week, the Cougars defense struggled early with New Mexico State’s quick tempo, allowing an early touchdown. But it showed the same penchant for takeaways it has displayed in recent seasons and held NMSU scoreless for nine consecutive possessions. Shutouts are always on the Cougs’ radar these days, as they’ve tallied three of them in their past 27 games.
“Every week, that’s our goal as a defense, to go out and give them doughnuts,” nose tackle Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei said.
Overall, Leach liked what he saw last week.
“For a first game, you’re always wondering how it will spill out after not playing for so long,” the eight-year coach said, “and I would say we were a little sharper than I guess I expected us to be. Our returners played like returners and our young guys played like young guys initially but bounced out of it.”
The Bears can only hope that trend doesn’t continue.
Dale Grummert may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 848-2290.