It's always stunning to me - we spend month and months and months anticipating football season, and then it starts flying by in a flash. Amazingly, this season is 25 percent over as the Cougs completed the non-conference portion of their schedule on Friday with a closer-than-anticipated victory over UNLV.
Of course, that was the story of the first three games. Whether it was never really feeling like WSU was in the BYU game, or EWU making a late charge that hinged on an Eagle wide receiver dropping a pass, or UNLV - a pretty extreme running team - throwing the ball all over the field to stay within arms' length of the Cougs, very little seemed to quite go the way we thought (hoped?) it would.
Being the teacher that I am, handing out grades comes naturally to me. So let's take a moment to assess the different position groups at the end of this first quarter.
Like a student who knows he wasn't at the top of his game in the early part of the term and dreads the report card, the Cougs probably aren't going to like what they see after the jump. Weigh in on the poll question, and leave your thoughts on the various grades in the comments.
Where it was expected the passing game - one of the more prolific in the country, at least in terms of raw yardage, a year ago - would, at the very least, pick up where it left off, the Air Raid just hasn't been anything special. In fact, the passing game has regressed, both statistically and aesthetically. Jeff Tuel won the job out of camp, but looked hesitant and out-of-sync with his receivers in his seven quarters of play before going down with a knee injury. Connor Halliday has been flashier, but also has continued to display the ball security issues that have a significant portion of the fanbase concerned. Both have shown promise, but neither has been as consistent as he will be. Some might have wanted to go lower with this grade, as we have pretty high standards for quarterbacks in our little part of the country. But ultimately, the quarterback play has been good enough to get the team to a pair of wins. Mediocre play, mediocre grade.
Grading these guys is a little difficult, since holes to run through have been sparse. However, Carl Winston, Leon Brooks and Teondray Caldwell have shown that they can pick up some yards when there's a seam - they averaged 3.95 yards per carry against UNLV after sacks. I'd give them an even higher grade if any of them showed a special aptitude for making guys miss and picking up a couple of extra yards on their own, but as it is, they've been solid with the ball in their hands. Where this unit has truly excelled is in an often overlooked aspect of their job: Pass protection. With the wide splits on the offensive line, it's absolutely imperative these guys lock down their assignment, and these guys have been spectacular on the rare occasion opponents haven't dropped seven or eight.
I don't think it's all that debatable to say this unit has been the biggest disappointment on the team. They haven't given up a ton of sacks, but that's largely been a function of teams only rushing three and four linemen. They've been largely unable to create holes against fronts geared to stop the pass, and they've committed fouls at inopportune times. Four - FOUR! - touchdowns have been wiped off the board because of holding penalties. You can debate whether some were even legit (BYU) and whether people would have scored without their help (EWU), but it is what it is. All we can do is hope that it's an issue of scheme and not talent. Some might want to go all the way to an F on these guys, but they've generally been able to give the quarterback time against a standard rush. That counts for something, because that hasn't always been the case over the past four years.
Another area where we've got pretty high standards. As Brian Anderson detailed, the passing game issues aren't all on the quarterbacks - their receivers haven't always done them huge favors with their inability at times to run crisp routes and find holes in the defense. Marquess Wilson has still been explosive at times, but has yet to perform up to his lofty reputation. The dropsies have been a problem, especially with freshman Gabe Marks. Isiah Myers has been a pleasant surprise, but in no way was he supposed to be the unit's most consistent receiver. We've been hearing about the talent here for years. It's time for these guys to show it.
Finally: A unit that struggled mightily in the Paul Wulff era that is performing at a high level. The highest compliment you can pay a defensive line in the run game is that they keep offensive linemen off their linebackers, and that's exactly what these guys have done. Ioane Gauta and Toni Pole have been double-team-eating nose tackles who have been incredibly difficult for opponents to move off the line of scrimmage - especially Gauta, who's been a revelation. The only thing keeping these guys from getting a higher grade has been the lack of pressure on passers when the team is only rushing four. I still remain concerned it could all fall apart if either Gauta or Pole go down, but for now, I'm pleased.
Another pleasant surprise. The starting unit has looked very good, with Darryl Monroe showing why he was in line to get significant playing time as a freshman before blowing out an Achilles - heck, I wouldn't have been surprised if he had passed C.J. Mizell at some point last season. He's physical and he plays fast. Travis Long also has been strong in the Buck role, flashing versatility I wouldn't have thought he had if these coaches hadn't put him in position to show it off. Cyrus Coen has been a missile, and the combo of Chester Su'a and Justin Sagote has been solid. Depth is a concern here, too - I love Jared Byers' effort, but I'm not sure how good I feel about him if Monroe goes down. But for now, I'm enjoying watching these guys fly around and make plays - it's nice to see blitzes that either get home or come close to it.
I was tempted to go F here, due in large part to the big plays these guys have given up in every game, but I keep coming back to the long stretches of poor passing by BYU and EWU - these guys haven't been a mess all the time. In fact, if we simply graded them out "solid play" and "poor play," the number of poor plays likely wouldn't be all that large - it's just that when they've made poor plays, they've been really, really poor - big plays over the top, flagrantly late hits, etc. The coaching staff continues to search for solutions at both corner and safety.
I can't give them an A in good conscience after the display of "punting" against BYU. But since then, this unit has been nails. Andrew Furney hit a 60-yard field goal. Yes, that really happened. And Mike Bowlin, brought in for his leg, has done exactly what he was supposed to: Putting kickoffs out of the back of the end zone and booming punts. He even mixes up the occasional high kickoff to the goal line, which caused real problems for Eastern. Heck, we've even seen some punt returns - like, actual plays where the guy catches the ball and runs with it, gaining positive yards, rather than just waving his hand in the air. So that's cool! In all, special teams look like they're turning into a real strength of this team, and if I had to bet, I'd guess this WSU version of Moneyball wins the Cougs a game at some point this year.
Changing coaching staffs and all the systems that go along with that is never easy, but it's impossible to get past the fact that the team just hasn't generally looked good. There's a sentiment out there that $4 million worth of coaches ought to get you a certain level of performance, and that just hasn't happened yet. As a good leader should, Mike Leach has taken on blame for the play at times, saying the coaches need to do better. I agree. The next quarter of the schedule, which features a patsy, a top 5 opponent and an ostensibly winnable game should tell us a lot about how well Leach and Co. are getting through to this team.
So, yeah - lots of room for improvement. But take heart by remembering this: While the Cougs haven't looked as good as we've wanted them to, the bottom line is that the team did emerge with two wins despite not playing its best. Disaster was indeed averted against both EWU and UNLV, and while it sounds cliché, this team is going to be judged on how it improves and what it does going forward - there are no style points early in the season.
We found that out last year. Maybe this year will end up differently.