PULLMAN — The ball was in the air for only a flash, but thousands of onlookers at Martin Stadium had time to think, “Gordo, what are you doing?”

The intended receiver was maybe one of them.  

Easop Winston Jr. later recalled the moment with an incredulous smile but said his exact thought was, “Oh, wow. Like, this dude has some guts.”

Anthony Gordon’s brio was not a revelation to Winston. He’d been seeing it since their days together at San Francisco City College four years ago, a history that Bay Area reporters evoked Saturday after Washington State’s surgical 49-22 win against Stanford. The Gordon-Winston connection was doubtless a better story angle than Stanford’s latest misadventure.

But Flash Gordon’s brio is freshly astonishing on a play like that, a 15-yard post route in which Winston angled into the end zone and fit nobody’s definition of “open” but Gordon’s. If the quarterback didn’t lead him perfectly, the play belonged to the cornerback. If he didn’t release the ball quickly, it belonged to the safety behind the play or the one raging across the middle.

But he did lead him perfectly. He did release like Derek Jeter firing to first base. The next thing you know, Winston was sprawled on the turf with the prize in his hands, surrounded by three stunned defenders and those thousands of delightedly stunned Dad’s Day fans.

That second-quarter touchdown, which gave the Cougars a 19-0 lead, was a cathartic moment for Gordon and the Wazzu offense. They know they lead the country in passing yards by the length of a Palouse wheat field. They know their combination of timing and cohesion is often extraordinary even by the standards of Mike Leach’s Air Raid.

They also know that their team, whose senior class includes Gordon, Winston and a few other vital cogs in their passing game, is in danger of missing a bowl berth for the first time in five years.

It was starting to seem wasteful, and the Cougars could no longer attribute the problem solely to the turbulence surrounding their defense. In their most recent loss, 33-20 at California, they had managed only one meaningful touchdown against the Bears’ brilliant defense, which seemed to be showing the world exactly how to blow up Leach’s schemes, especially in the red zone.

Now, with this balanced, self-assured performance in their first home game in four weeks, the Cougars moved within one win of bowl-eligibility with two games to go. No sweat, said sophomore running back Max Borghi, who guaranteed victory Saturday on Senior Night against Oregon State.

That may seem imprudent, but his older teammates will probably forgive him. Brio was in the air. And if you throw out 18 disastrous minutes against UCLA, the Cougars are outscoring the opposition 256-73 at home.  

Nonetheless, the Wazzu offense in recent weeks has increasingly realized that it needs to be more precise, sometimes impossibly precise, if it’s going to succeed against fast, sure-tackling defenses that view the Air Raid with a wide-angle lens and take few unnecessary risks.

Now, Stanford was not one of those defenses. It was risk-averse only because its injury-depleted secondary was outmatched. For much of the afternoon, time and space were on Gordon’s side.

Late in the second quarter, when he attempted an encore of the Winston TD, this time targeting Dezmon Patmon, he threw directly into the hands of safety Jonathan McGill. There was something gratuitous about the interception, as if Gordon were trying to burnish a maneuver he’ll need in the Cougars’ final two games — not really this one.

But the Winston TD? It might be physically impossible to get more precise than that.

Of course, precision wasn’t the only trait Winston needed on the play. That safety raging across the middle, the 6-foot-4 Stuart Head, greeted him the moment he touched the ball.

If Winston had been astonished by Gordon’s decision to throw, he was over it now. He needed very quickly to summon his own brio.

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

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