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The Monday After: WSU is shrinking the talent gap

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The Cougs took the Ducks to the wire; that they were able to do so tells us a lot about how far this program has come.

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

If you're looking at the headline and thinking to yourself, "Closing the gap on Oregon? Sweet, another 'moral victory for WSU' discussion," let me be clear: This is not that. (The moral victory discussion is over here, actually.)

Like a lot of you, though, I find myself sitting back and wondering what it actually means to have a chance to tie the No. 2 Ducks in the final minutes. Some people have already weighed in with "not much," since a loss is a loss in terms of the overall season goal of returning to a bowl game.

But we are nothing if not big picture around these parts. And as someone who launched this site as the Paul Wulff era was dawning, I can't help but marvel at how far the program has come, something that really came into focus as I rewatched the game last night.

Wulff's scorched earth strategy -- in which he ran off a number of players whom he deemed not committed enough, before attempting to replace them with adequately talented guys (which he ultimate failed to do) -- left quite the rebuilding job in front of Mike Leach. Things were so bad, one of my favorite people in the Coug-o-sphere, Coug-A-Sutra over at WSU Football Blog, used to joke that we'd measure progress in the secondary by whether the players could actually get in the television frame with the receivers they were supposed to be covering.

I was thinking of that last night as I watched this:

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The two underneath receivers were covered well enough, so Marcus Mariota did what has worked so often for years against WSU: Just throw it up to the guy who is going to run straight past his defender and watch him waltz into the end zone.

One problem: It didn't work this time, because Charleston White was able to run stride for stride with his man, recover, and make a play on the (slightly underthrown) ball. Plays like this -- the kinds of plays the Cougars haven't been able to make against a team like Oregon in at least a half decade because they didn't possess the athletic ability -- abounded in this game. In honor of Jeff Collier's erstwhile GIF-A-Paloozas, let's take a stroll through some of the more notable ones.

There were so many times last year I'd be chatting with one of the authors during a game and we'd say, "Oh man, if that running back could have just made one guy miss!" Well ...

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Then there was Darryl Monroe, finally arriving in the 2014 season, putting one of Oregon's guards -- a GUARD, not one of those backup tackles all the Duck fans were whining about -- on skates. Meanhwile, Toni Pole destroys the center and the other guard to give Mariota no chance at all:

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Want to know why Cole Madison is starting at right tackle as a redshirt freshman? Just watch him get out in front on this screen, then watch what he does to the DB after he engages:

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How often have we seen our linemen either, A) Lack the athleticism to even get out there, or B) Whiff once they do? What a play. Then there was this gem from Sulaiman Hameed, who starts a full 15 yards away from the receiver before doing this:

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And how about linebacker Jeremiah Allison tracking down the running back from behind here? That's the sixth-rated running back in the 2014 class, Royce Freeman:

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Lastly, here's Vince Mayle looking every bit the NFL prospect that he is. Four guys have a bead on him, and then ... nope:

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The Cougars obviously were far from perfect, with turnovers being a particular bugaboo again - three balls hit the ground and Oregon covered all of them, and the secondary had a number of assignment problems that led directly to touchdowns. Those two things probably was the difference in the game if you want the simplest analysis possible.

But for the first time in years, WSU looked like it could compete athletically with Oregon. I said after Nevada that I wasn't sure how much we'd learn over the next two games against Portland State and Oregon, given the seeming predictable nature of the forthcoming results. I was wrong: Independent of the result of the loss to the Ducks, being able to hang to some degree from a talent perspective actually is a pretty enormous step forward.

This wasn't just a case of the Cougars playing above their heads for an inordinate amount of time; this was a team that has legitimately raised its talent base in the last three years finally playing up to its potential. While I don't know how often they'll be able to play up to this ceiling, given the inconsistent nature of college players, it's incredibly encouraging for for the progress of the program as a whole.

And if Mike Leach can keep this 2015 class intact? I think it's safe to say the program ought to finally have the talent base it needs to compete on a regular basis in the Pac-12.

What We Liked

There are, of course, many things to choose from here. So I'm going to go with this: An incredibly underrated aspect of WSU's piles of yards after the catch on Saturday (and in other games) was the spectacular downfield blocking by the receivers. You can see it in every single reception shown above.

In particular, River Cracraft shows up repeatedly: Peeling back to hit a guy on Morrow's catch, pancaking a guy on the screen, and giving the ol' box out to help spring Mayle. That kid does everything with maximum effort, and pretty much does it all well. Have I mentioned lately how much I love that guy?

At any rate, this unit isn't just good because the receivers get open; this unit is good because it does the little things well. And I want to make sure that's gets recognized.

What Needs To Improve

On this night, there's really only one thing to point to: The secondary. We know it's young, we know it's probably going to be a problem all year, but still ... it's hard to not be disappointed when every TD comes on a wide open pass. The good news is that all of the TDs appeared to be a direct result of some sort of communication and/or mental error, and those things are correctable. I just continue to hope they correct quickly.

Who Impressed?

This is another category where there are so many to choose from, as evidenced by P.J.'s player of the week post. So I'm going to make up my own rules and go with a unit: The defensive front seven, with special recognition for Xavier Cooper, Darryl Monroe and Jeremiah Allison.

Cooper was highly touted in the preseason, but he had yet to impose his will on a game as a disruptive force. That change on Saturday, as he regularly annihilated whichever Oregon lineman had the misfortune of lining up across from him. He was practically unblockable in the first half.

Monroe, meanwhile, had been tremendously disappointing in the first three games. Whatever he was missing, he appears to have found it again; Monroe was aggressive and physical and (most importantly) assignment sound. There was an air of confidence around him that had been missing. So great to see.

And it's hard to heap enough superlatives on Jeremiah Allison. It appears he's finally found a home at Will linebacker after stops at Buck and Mike. The speed that initially led many to think his home would be as an edge rusher allowed him to repeatedly keep up with Oregon's speedy backfield. Tana Pritchard hasn't played particularly poorly, but Allison clearly brings a different dynamic back there.

Heck, let's just throw in Cyrus Coen, too. He had a couple of tackles for a loss and a touchdown-saving tackle, chasing down Mariota from behind.

All told, the linebackers combined for 17 solo tackles, including a sack and 3.5 other tackles for loss. Tremendous.

Honorable Mention: Ivan McLennan, Kache Palacio, Toni Pole, Darryl Paulo, Daniel Ekuale, Robert Barber.

Which Player Underwhelmed?

Daquawn Brown had a particularly tough game, including apparently being directly responsible for the first TD in man coverage, when he either thought he saw something he could jump or just didn't realize how freaking fast Devon Allen is.

Brown wasn't exactly running his mouth in this one, and while I know that probably makes some fans happy, I'd say that's a pretty good proxy for his confidence level. And I, for one, prefer a confident Daquawn Brown to the one that kept looking around wondering what just happened.

Up Next!

The Cougs travel to Utah for what figures to be a pretty important game for WSU's bowl hopes. Not that all games aren't important at this point, but this is one of those games where the Cougars will be playing against a team of a similar talent level and figure to not be out-manned.

There will be no such luck as the Cougs experienced last year, facing Utah's third string QB: Travis Wilson is fully healthy and playing very well for the Utes, who are now 3-0 after beating up on Idaho State and Fresno State at home, then waltzing into the Big House and beating Michigan.

Wilson is talented and gets a high degree of attention, but he's only had to throw the ball 58 times in three games -- or, roughly the amount of times Connor Halliday throws the ball in one game. A physical rushing attack has been the staple of every successful Utah team, and this one is no different, although it experienced precious little success against Michigan, averaging just 2.2 yards.

The defense, meanwhile, continues to do what it does, which is apply tremendous pressure on the quarterback. The offensive line stood up well to the Ducks' pass rush; how well they do against the Utes likely will go a long way toward determining this one.

The game kicks off at 5 p.m. PDT and can be seen on Pac-12 Networks.