PULLMAN – As Washington State and Idaho rejoined their battle on the Palouse on Saturday night after a six-year layover, it would have been hard to convince all but the oldsters in the audience that these two rural neighbors were once kindred spirits.
Oh sure, the Cougars have historically held sway over the Vandals in a big way, and that didn’t change on this pleasant, cool evening, as WSU frolicked to a 28-0 halftime lead on the way to a 42-0 victory.
WSU wasn’t immaculate, turning the ball over four times in the first three quarters, including its first three drives after halftime. But it was plainly the superior team athletically, and the Cougars essentially toyed with the Vandals to go 3-1 and nudge themselves toward a collision with Stanford in six days at CenturyLink Field.
It was the first WSU shutout since the Cougars blanked Idaho 25-0 in Seattle in 2003, and the first at home since a 44-0 whitewash of Louisiana-Lafayette in 1999.
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To get it, the Cougars had to stone Idaho at the WSU 1-yard line with seconds left after their coach, Mike Leach, got an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty.
“That was crazy,” said WSU defensive end Xavier Cooper, referring to the last-minute intensity. “That was something special. We really showed up as a defense. That’s our personality. We’re gonna chain the gates and fight all four quarters.”
The youthful in the audience might not realize that the Cougars and Vandals were fellow members of the Pacific Coast Conference from 1922 to 1958, and for years after that, they were wheat field have-nots trying to make their way on a playing field tilted toward the urban schools of the West.
No doubt that’s still the lot of the Cougars, and certainly, they’ve had severely fallow times of their own. But somewhere, the two programs took divergent turns that make you wonder whether their respective places on the college food chain have been magnified beyond reason.
While WSU is building the second big piece of a football-facilities transformation, the Vandals next year will do their own makeover — they’ll be switching conferences for the fifth time in 18 years. The Cougars have had the luxury of being tethered to the Pac-12, and while Idaho is negotiating life as an independent in 2013, WSU is cashing checks from the Pac-12’s megabucks TV deals.
In this one, the Cougars didn’t do anything to discourage the notion that despite all the hoo-ha over Leach’s offensive reputation, it’s their defense that might be the better unit in 2013.
Early, WSU mucked around aimlessly on offense. On its first play from scrimmage, quarterback Connor Halliday overthrew by 5 yards a criminally open Isiah Myers down the left sideline.
The last play of the first quarter was no kinder to Halliday, who overthrew River Cracraft over the middle and instead hit Vandal safety D’Mario Carter, marking Halliday’s seventh interception of the season.
Meanwhile, it was the WSU defense that pretty much snuffed anything profitable by the Vandals. The Cougars were not only bigger but quicker up front, as both Cooper and Junior Gauta generated regular penetration to keep Idaho misfiring.
“The defense played unbelievably,” said Halliday.
After his undistinguished start, Halliday warmed to the occasion. First, he recognized a blitz and gunned a quick slant to Gabe Marks, who put on an inside move and outraced safety Desmond Banks to the end zone for a 43-yard score.
Halliday threw three more touchdown passes in the second quarter — giving him nine in six quarters — as WSU began to dominate. The scoring throws went to Dom Williams (31 yards), junior college import Vince Mayle (20) and another to Marks (1).
Idaho finished with just 253 yards, the highest total among the past three WSU opponents.
“I thought we got a week better,” said Leach. “Each week you try to improve in increments. I thought we played hard. Early on, we tried to make a little too much happen. When we settled in, we played better.”
“We wanted to come out and dominate and we did,” said Cooper. “The scoreboard tells the truth.”
When it was done, WSU had earned its earliest third victory since the 2005 season. That might be a trifling distinction, but don’t tell that to the Vandals. In Paul Petrino’s first year on the sideline, they fell to 0-4 and the future, as ever, looks fuzzy.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org