Hello Followers. Hope you are looking forward to the start of 2017 as much as I am. I mean, I am SO DONE with 2016!
Many of you are probably familiar with the old adage: “one bad game does not a season make.” Well, last night’s Yuck-fest in San Diego pretty much defied that saying because last night, for me, was the absolute essence of a season-defining loss.
The last time I posted on this here blog was the morning after the Idaho game. At that point, I thought that WSU still had a shot at doing something special during the season–but the prospect of a repeat of 2014 made me want to shy away from being negative on the blog.
Anyhow, after the Idaho game, the Cougar defense appeared to be showing some improvement and life, and it appeared to me that the offense had finally found some life after Leach called them out for their lack of toughness following the Boise State game.
Of course, thankfully for us, the team went on to find the grit and moxy it needed to forge a brilliant mid-season run that saw us fall one game short of the Pac-12 championship game for the second year in a row. But sadly, the regular season’s final two games also showcased this teams’ stubborn tendency to play tight when it mattered most, and it also highlighted this team’s amazing ability to forget what enabled them to play winning football when the going got especially tough.
And clearly, those last two negative attributes were showcased in SPADES throughout the Holiday Bowl. And as a consequence, a season that could have been“great” became one that is “sourly disappointing,” at least in my book.
So, with that all in mind, I wanted to take a few minutes to highlight a few takeaways from last night’s game as well as the season overall—with a Star Wars flare given the loss of our Carrie Fisher yesterday.. I’ll conclude with a few words about our prospects for next season.
Take Away #1. Lack of Discipline
I know that there are several of you “out there” who are not big fans of Mike Leach—which is completely fine by me. Personally, I think that he has the potential to be a near “perfect” fit for WSU.
Well, because he has a unique “system”—one that is not only a bit quirky, but also one that he has shown he can recruit into (more on this later). And that ability to recruit into a particular system is important for a place like WSU, since we will have the same type of allure as schools that have 50k, 60k, 70k, or 100k seat stadiums (and yes, that kind of stuff matters to kids.)
And truly, when you think of the folks that have won at WSU, most have offered their own unique style.
I mean, both Mike Price and Dennis Erickson were the champions of the one-back when it was in vogue. And of course, Dick and Tony Bennett have that thing called “Bennett Ball” that seems to work pretty darn well wherever they go.
But the common denominator that undergirds all such programs—at least when they are successful—are three important pillars. And those pillars are Discipline, Execution, and Identity.
And unfortunately, this Cougar group too often failed to properly cultivate each of these key ingredients for program and season success. I mean, their lack of discipline was evident in spades during the off-season, which caused them grief throughout the 2016 campaign. They did not execute in a manner you would expect from a veteran team that essentially runs the same group of plays over and over and over and over again. And they too often failed to understand what made them successful during that blissful 8 game run. Which leads me to….
Take Away #2. Failure to Execute
Over a month has now past since our meltdown against the Huskies in the Apple Cup, Episode 5: The Sith Crush Us Again.
But if we dare to take a look back, it doesn’t take rocket scientist to know that we had the ball three times inside the Huskies 5 yard line and failed to score any points. And had we scored touchdowns on each of those three game-defining drives we would have scored, at minimum, 38 points–which is about what we needed to win that darn game.
And I bring up that “38 point” number because, if you recall back to the days where I actually wrote on this here blog, you’ll remember one of my central keys to winning each week” was to score at least 35 points a game.
And if you look at our record this year in games where we scored 35 or more points, you will see that we were 7-1 .
And when we failed to reach the 35 point mark, we were a paltry 1-4.
Now to be clear and fair, I don’t think it is realistic to expect any team to score 35 points a game every week against Power 5 competition. What I do think is fair, however, is for our team to bring the type of focus, discipline, and sense of identity that is needed to achieve those results on a consistent basis. And as Marks noted last night during post game, this team failed to come ready to play on too many occasions.
Take Away #3. A new Identity, Bringing Balance to the Force
After the Boise State game, Mike Leach chastised this team for being among the softest teams in the country. “JV softball” is what he called it, I believe.
But for me, the real reason why the team started the season in that dreadful 0-2 hole was because Luani got hurt while the offense couldn’t figure out how to finish drives when the opposition rushed three and dropped eight.
Thankfully, after the Boise game, the Cougar coaching staff (as well as Luke Falk), decided that one way to prevent teams from dropping 8 (even if they initially put as many in the box) was to run the stinking football.
And wouldn’t you know it, whenever the Cougs made a concerted effort to run the football from that moment forward, we actually won football games!!!!
Consider the following rushing stats as a case in point.
(NOTE: Throughout the “analyses” provided below, I am NOT counting Luke Falk’s rushing numbers because they were not designed plays. I am, however, counting yards lost to sacks as a part of the rushing total, meaning that effect of rushing is biased downwards. Lastly, I excluded the ASU game from these figures because it represented a true “outlier” game)
Our rushing “stats” in five Cougar losses.
Average Yards per Game on the Ground: 76.4
Average Rushing Attempts per Game: 17.2
Now contrast that, with our rushing stats in 7 of our 8 wins:
Average Yards per Game on the Ground: 176
Average Rushing Attempts per Game in 7 of 8 Wins: 28.6
Don’t know about you all, but I find those results to be absolutely stunning!
But there’s more of course….
Want to know the average number of points WSU scored when it either reached or failed to reach 100 yards in a game?
Well, when the Cougs rushed for 100 yards or more per game, the team averaged 46.8 points a game (range 24 to 69, median=46).
In contrast, when the Cougs rushed for less than 100 yards per game, the team averaged a meager 24.2 points per game (range 12 to 37, median=27.2).
Of course, this is a long-winded way of saying that when this team ran the ball—and developed a “balanced” offensive identity (together with the toughness that comes with it), it was VERY successful, at least offensively.
And when it didn’t, it wasn’t. Period.
Take-Away #4. Recruiting, Recruiting, Where Have You Gone?
A couple of weeks ago, I remarked to my old buddy SeanHawk that I found it amazing that WSU has failed to land a 5 star burner at WR during Leach’s tenure. I mean, when you think about the potential for record setting numbers that a track star like John Ross could put up in this offense, you would think that Leach would sign about 1 super-star guy in each class, right?
Well, last night showed that we are much more than one taco short of a combination.
Instead, what last night showed us is that we have essentially whiffed on recruiting depth and talent at the WR position for quite a while. I mean, think about it: Both Marks and Lewis were each a part of Leach’s FIRST recruiting class at WSU (Lewis gray-shirted) while Cracraft was featured in Leach’s second class.
But beyond that, we essentially have been landing ONE guys of substance in each class (at least what we can see so far). I mean, Lewis, really shouldn’t be considered a Junior even if he is one—meaning that we essentially have NO ONE from the current class who is a real contributor.
Tavares Martin is a stud out of the sophomore group while Sweet appears serviceable if not solid. But that’s only two guys!. And while the Freshman—Porter, Mack, and Patmon—may turn out to be gold—only one of them saw action this year. And as we saw last night, the results weren’t that great.
In short, if Leach is going to continue to run this Air Raid thing, then it might help to up the ante on the recruiting front. And to that point, it appears that the churn of those WR position coaches (Simmons especially) has really, really taken its toll.
Take-Away #5. The Force is Strong with You Young Luke, BUT You are NOT a Jedi yet.
It’s hard to criticize a guy who has done so much for Cougar Football. I mean, Luke Falk seems like a TERRIFIC guy, he has a tremendous work ethic, and he also is one hell of a quarterback when the conditions are right.
But the last 3 games also provided a pretty strong testament about his readiness for the next level. And while I’ll leave it up to folks who know more about the game to dissect Luke’s strengths and weaknesses—the one thing that was evident to me about Luke over the past couple of games is that when you get him off his spot, he’s just not very good. And if you watch today’s NFL game, you know that there are very few circumstances in which an NFL quarterback can succeed without being able to throw consistently on the move (h/t SeanHawk).
So, if Luke wants to take his game to the next level—and if he or we have any illusions of being better than an 8 or 9 win team (or a bowl team)—then he’s going to have to develop that part of his game.
The good news, of course, is that he appears to have the disposition and work ethic to do just that.
I’ll have more thoughts on the 2017 season in the coming weeks and months. But at this point, we know that we will have 7 home games next year against the likes of Montana State, Boise State, Nevada, Stanford, Oregon State, Utah, and Colorado. Several of those teams will be losing guys at key positions, especially running back, and so there will be games to be had at home……
And when you look at the away games? Well, Arizona, Oregon, and CAL figure to have several question marks on offense AND on defense, while Washington and USC loom as prohibitive favorites even if they wind up losing a bunch of guys to the NFL.
What that means for the Cougars in a nutshell is that there will be yet another opportunity for the Cougars to contend for a Divisional title. The difference NEXT year—even more than this one—is that the strength of next year’s team figures to lie in the ground game, while the passing game will be replete with question marks–even if Falk stays.
And that simple fact will challenge Mike Leach’s ability to adapt his system to his players, which to this point he has seemed largely reluctant to do.
So, put next year’s version of WSU Cougar Football down right now as one of the more interesting, if not intriguing, story lines for the 2017 Pac-12 season.
But unless there is a sudden infusion of better discipline, execution, and identity into the program, next year figures to end in a manner similar to this one: Close, but REALLY no cigar.
That’s all the time I have for the rest of 2016. Merry New Year to all the faithful!!!!!!!
All for now. Go Cougs and Roll Tide!