1. Fake punt 2. Onside kick 3. Clock BS 4. 2 fucked up reviews 5. Marks fumble 6. Dom drop TD 7. Clock BS 8. Falk pick at end More?— 425CougFan (@425CougFan) October 3, 2015
9. Dom inability to stay inbounds for easy TD 10. Ball sitting on Cal 5 yard line for 8 seconds with nobody getting it Good grief.— 425CougFan (@425CougFan) October 3, 2015
Mistakes are to be expected in a game involving players between the ages of 18 and 23. They happen, and there's a built in expectation that a team will make mistakes. Nobody in college football is going to play perfect; even in the NFL this is the case. To be a fan of football is to learn to tolerate some amount of mistakes.
What cannot be tolerated, though, is the same mistakes happening over and over, not just week-to-week but year-to-year. None of these things are new, and the mistakes that had the biggest impact on Saturday's result -- the onside kick and failed fake punt -- were the ones that have been a theme throughout Leach's tenure.
Placing the blame at the feet of the players is too easy, though. If this were a one-week thing then sure: Chalk it up to players having a rough game. When the mistakes have become so predictable, such a part of Washington State football, that the fan base can script out a game for you before it even starts, you have a problem.
Football is a game of inches, which is really a Football Way of saying it's a game the requires attention to detail. The best, most perfect for the opponent schemes in the world can be derailed by a single player shifting his weight slightly in the wrong direction. That's all it takes. If your team lacks attention to detail, it will get exposed.
An attention to detail was supposed to be a strong suit of Leach and the Air Raid. The scheme itself isn't all that complicated; the advantage comes from the speed at which the team practices, and the attention paid to repeating plays and concepts over and over until they become second nature. Do the same thing over and over in practice and it becomes muscle memory that translates to the game. Simple enough, and yet mistakes continue to be as a result of details that aren't given the appropriate amount of attention.
When I see a talented wide receiver corps still dropping passes, it becomes clear that details aren't being paid attention to. Why, for example, is this talented group of wide receivers still dropping passes? Why, with the game on the line, did Luke Falk throw flat-footed into double coverage down the field?
The job of the coaching staff is to create the high-level theory (scheme) for an opponent, based off of an attention to detail that comes from spending hours upon hours scrutinizing game film, looking for tendencies, spots to exploit, and positions of strength. Coaches can dial up all they want on Saturday, but the real work is done well beforehand in dark rooms at all hours of the day.
If you want an example of superb coaching, look no further than Cal's onside kick. That's a Film Win by Cal. Either before or during the game, Cal saw something that was begging to be exploited: Washington State's front line on kick coverage was pinched towards the middle of the field, with ample room between the last man on each side and the sideline.
The theory behind a surprise onside kick is -- I know, this is groundbreaking -- using the element of surprise to create a favorable matchup. This is usually either catching a player bailing early and leaving a hole in the defense, or kicking it towards a favorable 1-on-1 matchup in hopes that the ball is bobbled or that your player beats their player to the spot.
Cal didn't have to worry about any of this. Because the Cougars weren't even lined up right, it was a free shot. And they took advantage of it.*
*Yes I understand there was uproar about whether the player had control. But taking that out of the equation and looking at it from a process standpoint, Cal did everything right and Washington State did everything wrong.
Washington State got outcoached. Again. Despite having offensive and defensive game plans good enough to win the game, the Cougars, for what feels like the billionth time in three years, blew the special teams phase of the game.
For a coach that hired a bunch of assistants with special teams experience at the start of his tenure and appeared to actually care about this facet of the game, there are no words for what we've seen on the field..
Going into the half, Washington State was set to receive the ball up by 8. Cal scored just before the end of the half, sure, but the Cougars had an opportunity to come out swinging. That opportunity was made even greater by a nice kickoff return that set them up at the 40. The drive never really got started, though, leading to a fourth and one at midfield.
Here's where the part of my brain that deals in logic breaks. Washington State clearly committed to going for it. That's not much of a surprise -- the Cougars are going to take chances and leave the offense out on the field in fourth and manageable situations more often than not.
Except Leach didn't leave the offense on the field. With the play clock winding down, he hustled the punting unit on and put the ball in the hands of his playmaker -- a 6'1", 192 pound freshman punter -- in an effort to get the first down. If that sentence sounds sarcastic, it's because it is.
In what world is it a better idea, on fourth and one in a spot where everyone in the building knows you're going to try and pick up the first down, to put the ball in the hands of a freshman punter instead of a skill player? Washington State has dangerous weapons all over, whether a bruising running back or shifty receiver. There are many players on the roster that can get a yard, and whose job it is to handle the ball. The likelihood of a disaster -- like, say, a scoop and score fumble return -- is low with these skill players.
And yet, the decision was made to have a punter try and run up the gut, towards very large players that hit very hard, instead of trusting the offense to get the job done. This is inexcusable and the loss can be directly traced back to this play call.*
*Note that I am not blaming the punter here. I can't. He was put in position to fail by his coaches.
This team plays to the level of its opponent. It's cliche, sure, but look at this season: Portland State had no business being in that game; Wyoming also had no business being in that game; Cal looks pretty good and the Cougars actually did come out swinging; Rutgers, with all the injuries and off-field drama should've been an easy out.
When players are coming out of the first game of the year essentially admitting they overlooked an FCS team, that's an issue. When it keeps happening over and over, even after a season-opening wake up call? The players are not being prepared mentally to go to work on Saturday.
Some of this comes down to the players having to make a decision for themselves about playing one game at a time and treating each opponent like it's the biggest game in the world. But it also comes down to how the staff prepares the team, and what is being used to motivate the players.
This may not seem like the biggest thing in the world, but it's a symptom of a culture problem.
For as long as I can remember (and this predates Leach), there have been signs that say FINISH, or some variation of this, around the program. It was borne out of necessity and speaks for itself: Washington State rarely seems to actually put away a team. Sure, the Cougars can play great for three quarters -- maybe with a lead, or maybe keeping things close.
But look at this year for prime examples of being unable to finish in any real way. Rutgers should've been dead and buried long before a desperation drive that led to a win. It took Jeremiah Allison stepping in front of a pass to finally bury Wyoming, despite the fact that the Cowboys should've been dead long before it came to that.* They won these games, but they didn't really finish them.
*If we were to go back further: Rutgers last year, Auburn, Colorado State, Oregon, Cal (this and last year), Colorado in 2012 to name a few.
Cal, at multiple points in the game, stuck its chin out and dared the Cougars to go for the knockout. Instead the Cougars swung as hard as they could and somehow knocked themselves out. This is your Washington State Cougars.
When Mike Leach was hired, part of the reason for the hire was his brand of football. It was supposed to be exciting and fun, and put "butts in seats." The high-powered, score-at-any-moment offense was supposed to bring Fun Football to Pullman for maybe the first time since Mike Price was in town.
This isn't fun. It hasn't been fun outside of a nice little run in 2013. Sure, the offense can, at times, put up points in a hurry. But there's always something that derails Leach's teams. Maybe it's special teams. Maybe it's an inability to stop an opponent. Maybe the offense just disappears for large stretches.
My biggest issue with Washington State right now is that it just isn't fun to watch. There were moments against Cal, but watching a team shoot itself in the foot over and over, almost week to week, for three-plus years is not my idea of a fun Saturday.
* * *
There is talent on this Washington State roster. There's been talent, too, despite the constant crowing of "we're young" that seems like it's been going on for about a decade. This isn't a Paul Wulff team getting its doors blown off. It is, however, a team that should be doing the blowing off of doors.
What you saw on Saturday was Mike Leach playing one of his proteges in a Pac-12 game (again). You saw two programs that needed to undergo significant rebuilding efforts, with Washington State making its coaching change a year earlier. And you also saw two teams that use similar coaching schemes, yet look completely different from an execution standpoint.
If you want a barometer for what Washington State could look like, it's Cal -- and the Cougars should be ahead of the Bears on the rebuilding timeline (they aren't).
* * *
Another big part of football is pattern recognition. Whether it's spotting tendencies on film to allow players to diagnose plays on the fly, or matching down and distance with certain play calls, the ability to spot and interpret patterns is vital. I say this not to make a point about something on the field, but instead to apply pattern recognition to the program itself.
We are now a third of the way through Leach's fourth season, and that's enough data to spot patterns. At this point, the DNA of the program under Leach is clear: It's an aloof program with quirks that does a disservice to the talent on the roster.
Expecting things to change at this point in Leach's tenure is unrealistic.