After Friday night’s horrible, but unsurprising loss, Cougar Nation is left with a pretty basic question. How the hell did we get here? Today’s post is focused on answering that very question. And because that question elicits a whole lot of issues, answering it is going to take a while. So, pull up a chair and let’s get to it, shall we?
Part 1. How did we lose the last two games?
Those of you who have actually played competitive sports know that one particular play never really decides a game.
Take Cougar basketball from a few years back as an example: We get the ball down one with five seconds left on the clock, Reggie Moore gets the ball, doesn’t pass, throws up an off-balance brick from 18 feet and the buzzer sounds.
Now, is it Reggie’s fault that we lost? Not really. I mean you could take any shot that preceded it, and if one of those goes in, Reggie’s shot doesn’t matter. Unless of course, it does.
And that really is the story of the first game. To be sure, there were LOTS of plays that could have turned the course of the game. And while River Cracraft was absolutely BRILLIANT in that game, the fact of the matter is that fumbled punt cost us dearly. And although there are certainly no guarantees, he fair catches that ball and there’s probably upwards of a 98% chance that we win the opener.
And then we have last Friday’s game against Nevada—a game that showed that we have far more warts than just about any of us could have imagined prior to the season. But if you go back and watch that game, three things become clear in a hurry: (1) Special Teams again cost us, particularly in the kicking game. (2) Our offensive line was often unable to handle a rush of three. (3) The officiating was not only horrible, but absolutely debilitating to what we want to do as an offense.
Now, those of you who like to fashion yourselves as “tough guys” would say that the officiating wasn’t a real factor in the game. And with all due respect, I think you’re full of ____. Simply put, when your offensive line is struggling to hold blocks, it is nearly impossible to get a pass off in time when your receivers are being held from the front AND the back. And less you think that doesn’t matter, well, why do you think that there are these things called “rules.” I mean, last time I checked, football wasn’t the Vietnam—there are rules!
To make matters worse, while Nevada was able to hold our guys at will, our guys were not allowed to even touch their wide receivers. And so, the unbalanced officiating cut us hard in two ways on Friday: It took away our primary strength (our Wide Receivers) and it also helped to exploit an area of weakness on defense (our secondary—which by the way played pretty darn well anyway). So, when you add up those factors, you get a loss where we actually held an opponent to UNDER 350 yards total offense while out-gaining them by over 100 yards.
Part 2. Why are we so bad now when last year’s team won six games?
One of the more popular answers this implicit question is to suggest that last year’s team over-achieved. Meaning: This year’s losses can be readily explained by the fact that, when you get down to it, last year’s team just wasn’t very good.
And to all of you out there who adhere to that philosophy, well, I suggest that you go back and re-watch the entire 2013 season of Pac-12 football (like I basically did over the summer).
To recap, last year’s team did EXACTLY what 6-6 teams do: They beat the teams on their schedule with losing conference records and lose to teams that have winning records—often in spectacular blow-out fashion. Last year, we beat every team on our schedule that had a losing record in conference. The lone exception: Oregon State.
Then, of course, we beat one team that had a winning record in conference: USC. And while it’s tempting to lay that win at the feet of Lane Kiffin, the fact of the matter is that USC only began to quit on their season AFTER they lost to us. I mean, not only was that game a full-on war, it followed a woulda-coulda-shoulda game that we lost at the home of the team that finished as the national runner up. Again, go back and watch the Auburn game and the speed it was played at and you will quickly see that, at times, last year’s team was a GOOD football team (and don’t take my word for it, David Shaw said the same thing ALL of last year).
Now, because of the fact that last year’s team showed a boatload of promise, it seemed pretty clear to diehards like myself that this year’s team was going to be pretty good. And the reason why I thought that was because I looked at the guys that were returning and hung on them while quickly dismissing the guys that we lost.
But when you look at the key factors which have contributed to our two opening losses, that assumption seems awfully flawed. Consider the issues that have presented themselves this year relative to the guys we lost from last year’s team:
1) Failure to muster turnovers on defense.
Losses: Deone Bucannon and Damante Horton. Last year, we were awful on defense but had 16 interceptions: Deone and Horton had 11 of them.
2) Failure to Stop the Run
Losses: Deone Bucannon and Junior Gauta. A team’s ability to stop the run always starts with the play up the middle. Last year, Gauta was our defensive co-MVP—at least early in the year while Bucannon obviously was 1st team All-American in addition to an 1st round draft pick. To this point, go back to the New Mexico Bowl and see what the score was before Gauta got injured in that game…..
3) Failure to Protect Connor
Losses: Bosch, Fullington, and Goetz. Last year’s offensive line was the surprise story of the season in many ways. And while those guys still may not have been stellar, there were some real important story lines with that group. First, Elliot Bosch was Connor’s center in high school. Prior to fall camp this year, Halliday said the following: “When I’d give the wrong call out at the line of scrimmage, Elliot knew what I wanted to say and would get us in the right check.” Think we miss that?
Then, there’s Fullington—a guy that dudes in the blog-o-sphere loved to ridicule. But at the end of the day, the dude started for four years and now finds himself getting paid to play football for the 49ers. Lastly, while Matt Goetz wasn’t a world beater, he quietly anchored the offensive line during our late season run in 2011. And after surviving the fact that Leach and company didn’t like him at Tech, he came back and played very well in spots last year. To wit, losing those dudes—in the short term—was a really big deal.
4) Failure to Convert on Field Goal Attempts
Loss: Andrew Furney. Need I say more?
5) Failure to Get Production in the Running Game
Losses: Marcus Mason, Teondray Caldwell, Cory Lafausa. On Friday night, we got VERY limited production again out of the running game. And while I have no doubt that Morrow and Wicks are some really talented dudes, it still feels weird that we lost ALL of the guys who played pretty well for us last year because, well, WE DECIDED TO LOSE THEM!!!
I mean, Lafausa was gold in the redzone last year and we decided to not offer him a scholarship. Meanwhile, Marcus Mason is gone from the field in spite of leading us in rushing last year (with a 4.9 avg. yards per carry) as well as catching FIFTY TWO balls for an average of 7.5 yards per catch. Also, last I checked, he blocked pretty well for his position.
Mind you, I’m sure that the coaches have their reasons, but it’s still pretty hard for me to imagine that Marcus wouldn’t serve us well right now (or the last two games). To put it bluntly, the game tape suggests he should be playing. And one has to wonder how it sits in the locker room that a senior who played well last year is now planted deeply on the bench.
6) Difficulty in the Return Game
Loss: Leon Brooks. Enough said.
In short summary, all the guys who we thought were “no big deal” losses have shown themselves to be dearly missed in the first two games. Mind you, notwithstanding Bucannon, I have little doubt that the new guys are more talented. But for now, they represent a key reason as to why this year has been MUCH different from last year.
Part III. If we’re bad again this year, is the Mike Leach era dead-on-arrival?
Yesterday, Jim Moore issued a scathing indictment of the Leach era in Pullman. And obviously, he’s not alone in that sentiment. And while I am not ready to say the Leach era will be an unqualified success, I do want to offer a few important reminders. Let’s start with the 2012 season.
First, as we all know, the 2012 season was a disastrous 3-9. Only a miraculous performance against the Huskies helped smooth over what was a horrible year.
The funny thing about 2012 was the fact that Leach actually inherited a team that across the first string was about as talented as the 2007 team. So, the whole notion that Leach somehow inherited a bare cupboard seems pretty far from accurate.
Of course, the problem with the 2012 team was that three of its most talented guys never saw the field. For instance, both CJ Mizell and Sekope Kaufusi were kicked off the team prior to spring ball, and so was Anthony Laurenzi two weeks prior to the opener. And then of course we had the issue with our NFL receiver Marquess Wilson—who was slated to start for the Bears this year before he got hurt.
To be clear, I’m not saying that those guys should not have been booted from the program. What I am saying is imagine what that year would have been like if all of those guys had played and done so to their potential. What’s more, imagine what 2013 would have looked like with Mizell and Kaufusi as linebackers and Marquess as a senior. And if you want to play the “what if” game even more, imagine what the pass rush might have looked like this year and last if Logan Mayes had not been let go???
Anyhow, the result of the loss of those personnel was a team that was far less talented that it would have been if things had gone according to plan. Of course, it didn’t and so the 2012 team was left with a skeleton defense and an offensive line that was historically bad. And that’s why we went 3-9.
Part IV. Where do we go from here?
The first thing we all need to do moving forward is to take a deep breath. To be sure, we all want to be bowl eligible every year. And we especially want to do so when we have a third year starting quarterback and a stable of talented receivers.
But the fact of the matter is that outside of ONE three year run, we’ve never even achieved consistent mediocrity at WSU. And while the new facilities offer some promise that we might soon be able to achieve that status, the fact of the matter is that the new facilities opened for the first time in the spring. Meaning: THIS IS THE FIRST YEAR THAT THEY ARE A FACTOR IN RECRUITING.
So, we all need to know that this re-building thing–however painful–is going to take time. That said, here are a few things that I think we need to address over the remaining 10 games of the season.
1) Run the F-ing Football
Unlike many in the blog-o-sphere, I am 100% convinced that Mike Leach’s offense is the best thing that happened to WSU football since the hiring of Mike Price. But, my love for all things Air Raid comes with one stipulation: Mike Leach’s offense will work when other teams put at least 5 guys in the box. When the box is emptied and teams drop 8, the Air Raid simply doesn’t work—unless of course, you make teams pay for that by running the football.
In 2012, teams dropped 8 against us all the time and we were awful. Last year, teams like Auburn tried that crap and we ran it down their throats. On Friday, we responded to Nevada dropping 7 or 8 by resorting to bubble screens. Obviously, that didn’t work out very well.
So, over the next 4-5 games, it might be nice to figure that out. What’s more, it might be nice to spend entire practices running the football. Maybe then, we can keep teams honest, while also giving our 1st string defense more opportunities to improve their play against the run.
2) Evaluate our Defensive Coaching Staff
When I look at our defensive coaching staff, I see mostly positives. Clearly, Coach Joe is a guy that we need for recruiting–since finding Pac-12 quality linemen is always one of the biggest challenges at WSU. And while the rest of the guys seem fine and dandy in many ways, the fact of the matter is that at many times it seems like we are under-coached. And lest you all think that coaching doesn’t matter, check out what Washington looked like under Nick Holt. After that, think about how they looked in two years under Justin Wilcox. And then, then check out the box scores from their first two games this season (and yes, they have nearly EVERYONE back from a front seven that some folks ranked as best in the league).
In short, coaching matters. What’s more, when you look at the continued lack of speed at the linebacker corps, you have to wonder about whether we’ve been recruiting and developing the right kind of athlete over the last three years. Clearly, these are some tough questions that should be addressed while there is still coaching talent out there.
3) Re-Think Quarterback Play in the Air-Raid
As you all know, I’m a sliver short of thinking that the sun rises and sets on Connor Halliday. Truly, I think he’s one of the best to ever put on a WSU uniform. At the same time, when I look at the profile of guys who are elite quarterbacks in the Pac-12 as well as places like West Virginia and Baylor, well, it might be good to start thinking more about recruiting dual threat guys. Because even if the goal is still to throw the ball 60 times again—we’re probably not going to see teams drop 8 when the quarterback can get 5 yards per carry every time.
To reiterate: This is not to hate on Leach or the Air Raid—because I really like them both. But unless we can force teams to rush five, it’s going to be a perilous journey out of the national cellar.
That’s all the time I have for today. I’ll be back Friday with a rousing game pick.
All for now. Go Cougs!