PULLMAN — Ron Stone Jr. had no choice but to smile and dissimulate.

Someone had asked the edge rusher why Washington State football players had doused coach Nick Rolovich with Gatorade after their 34-31 win Saturday night against Stanford.

"You have to celebrate close-game victories," Stone said, his booming voice even hoarser than usual. "You don't always have a dogfight kind of game like that."

Apparently, then, no Gatorade had been available after the Cougs' heart-stopping win against Oregon State the previous week. Chalk it up to the global supply-chain crisis.

But Stone could hardly have answered that question by blurting out, "Because that win was for him."

Even though it was.

Like everyone else, Cougar players didn't know for certain that Rolovich would be fired sometime this week for refusing to comply with a mandate for state employees to be fully vaccinated by today. Maybe they still don't.

Maybe Rolo will finally say, "No mas," hold his arm out for the Johnson & Johnson jab and take a two-week hiatus in Hawaii while somebody temporarily takes the Cougar reins. After Stone's performance Saturday, I nominate him as player-coach.

Barring that sort of scenario, however, this ship looks headed straight for the iceberg. Even if a WSU committee grants Rolovich the religious exemption for which he applied, the onus gets passed to school administrators who may already have the pink slip filled out and ready to deliver.

As they've stated multiple times without naming names, it would be different if Rolovich were a graphic artist working in a vacuum. But he's a football coach working with dozens of people on a daily basis, in a state that has made its stringent policy clear.

These facts hovered in the mid-October sunlight Saturday at Gesa Field during a peculiar game marked by inspired plays, uncharacteristic errors and strange little bursts of emotion.

You can't attribute them all to Rolo's limbo. But you wanted to anyway. For thousands of (vaccinated) fans, it was the elephant in the stadium.

The inspired plays included Jayden de Laura's 41-yard pass to the back shoulder of a double-covered Calvin Jackson Jr., setting up Max Borghi's go-ahead touchdown with 90 seconds remaining.

They also included Stone's win-clinching trifecta of pass-rushes off the edge, resulting in a first-down sack, a second-down near-miss and a third-down assist on a Quinn Roff sack, causing a fumble recovered by WSU's Brennan Jackson.

These plays seemed cathartic on multiple levels, and they atoned for an early series of miscues that had looked like casting errors in a play.

The Wazzu punter got flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, reportedly for an extracurricular kick. After a media timeout, de Laura seemed to slip into a daze and got called for delay of game. Conscientious linebacker Jahad Woods was ejected in the first quarter for targeting.

The list goes on. On one play, the Cougars' excellent safeties gave Stanford tight end Benjamin Yurosek far too wide a berth, resulting in a 45-yard touchdown to open the scoring.

Even the ending was odd. After Stone and his fellow edges obliterated Stanford's final possession to set up a WSU victory formation, a Stanford lineman lurched at the snap and burst into the line as if it were a normal play.

As time expired, de Laura gave the lineman an earful, and a minute or two later he still looked to be processing a swirl of emotions when he told a radio audience, "Stop hatin' on Rolo. We love him."

Meanwhile, receiver Travell Harris took a euphoric leap into Rolovich's arms — because, you know, you've got to celebrate a close-game victory — and Renard Bell found yet another auxiliary task to perform.

He's been filling all sorts of them this season while sitting out with an ACL injury. With help from fellow receiver Lincoln Victor, he deftly poured that barrrel of green Gatorade onto Rolovich's shoulders and back.

Joy is a simple emotion — Stone was right about that. As this game foreshadowed, the Cougars in the coming days will feel a bunch of more complicated ones.

Grummert may be contacted at daleg@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2290.