WSU vs. Oregon: Mike Leach and the Cougars fail to follow the upset recipe

Otto Greule Jr - Getty Images

When a team is heavily out-manned, there are certain strategies it can employ in an effort to tilt the game in its favor. WSU sort of tried to do that on Saturday, but probably didn't go far enough.

There typically are a series of unexpected events that occur to set the wheels in motion when a team pulls an epic upset. Miscues by the favorite can play a large role in that, but an underdog can spend the entire game waiting for mistakes that might never come.

Instead of sitting back an hoping, an underdog would be wise to go on the offensive by introducing a level of unpredictability to the game -- something SB Nation's Bill Connelly wrote about in the wake of Louisiana-Monroe's improbably overtime win against a top 10 Arkansas team in Fayetteville. The Warhawks threw caution to the wind to put the pressure on Arkansas, and it worked.

Although he did call an unexpected onside kick, Mike Leach didn't go quite as far as Todd Berry on Saturday against Oregon. And after reflecting on Leach's general philosophy on going for it and closely analyzing the final three plays of the second drive of the game -- on which the Cougs had 1st-and-goal from the 2-yard-line, only to eventually kick a field goal after already having gone for it on fourth down once in field goal range -- I concluded that if WSU actually wanted to win the game, the Cougs really needed to go for it not just on that drive, but also the next time they had 1st-and-goal inside the 5 and settled for a field goal.

Some thoughts on that via my side-side project, a weekly email newsletter called Cougar Sports Weekly:

Oregon just has so much speed on defense. When you get that close to the goal line and the field gets compressed … it’s so incredibly hard to make room to do things. That speed makes the windows microscopic, and it’s a huge reason why Oregon is seventh nationally in red zone touchdown percentage defense – the Ducks have given up just six TDs in 21 opponent red zone trips. Arizona, with its prolific offense, scored zero points on six red zone trips against Oregon last week.

This was something that was tough for me to see watching the game live from the other end of the stadium, but was very clear when I watched each play about three times yesterday morning: Oregon completely dominated those three plays. There’s just no other way to put it. And I think that’s really the story behind why WSU didn’t go for it there. Maybe the Cougs convert on fourth if they go for it, but Leach obviously thought the odds were low. Combined with how mentally fragile this team is – Leach’s words, not mine -- Leach did what he felt he had to do.

It’s tough for me to say whether that’s the right call in the long run. Maybe WSU is able to build off the fact that it hung with Oregon for a half, and getting those three points was a part of that. And maybe the boost from being able to point to that first half score during preparation this week is legitimate. I’m not going to pretend that I know the answer to that.

But I know one thing: Kicking that field goal was absolutely the wrong call if WSU was going to pull off that upset on Saturday. Same thing with the later field goal on 4th-and-goal from the 3-yard-line. Sure, if WSU doesn’t get either of those scores, they’re down by at least 10 at half. But even if they only get one of them, it’s basically a wash. So, the only way you shouldn’t go for it on both of those is if you’re absolutely convinced the odds are good that you’re going to go 0-for-2.

The point? If you get them both, maybe you've got a real shot at an upset.

These are just 360 of the nearly 3,000 words I sent out to my subscribers this week. It included more thoughts on the game, a look at Oregon State, and a roundup of WSU's non-revenue sports. If you like what you read, you can subscribe to Cougar Sports Weekly at my website. If you've never seen a full copy of the newsletter, shoot me an email at admin@cougarsportsweekly.com and I'll send you a complimentary edition. I think you'll like it.

But, at the very least -- tell me what you think. Am I crazy? Was Leach right to just get the two field goals?

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