1. Rutgers fans are great. They're broken, but still great and welcoming and seem like very nice people. I say broken because … well, Wazzu fans know the feeling too. Which made for an interesting dynamic: Fanbases of two teams that feel (or felt) pretty hopeless at the moment gathered together under gray skies in New Brunswick to watch a game everyone expected to be a mess. They were lovely and welcoming, though, and maybe that's because Rutgers fans are us without the ability to empty a keg in the time it takes the Scarlet Knights to house another kickoff or punt.
2. I didn't catch their names, but the lovely group near the main stadium entrance on the hill saw a group of us walking in Wazzu shirts and pulled us into a tent to feed us, offer us booze and to chat for about an hour before the game. They themed the tailgate, as they always do, after the visiting team: This week it was apples. Pulled pork with apples, salad with apples, sausage and apples, etc. We complimented the apples with Fireball, as one does.
Well played here, too, with the 1869 National Champions:
3. An on-campus stadium is a pretty great luxury. The ability to walk to Martin Stadium -- or any on campus stadium -- easily is probably something I took for granted. Rutgers is most certainly not an on-campus stadium, and to get to it you have to board busses that take you on a tour of beautiful New Brunswick before crossing a river and emptying out in front of the stadium. This ride can take 30 or more minutes with traffic, and to get back you do the reverse -- this time with most of the stadium herding into holding pens to wait for a huge line of busses. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; it's just different from plopping Martin Stadium down smack in the middle of campus.
4. I don't know why special teams are a blind spot, but that game was close to as bad as Wazzu-Cal last year. The only reason I wouldn't quite put it at worse than that disaster is Erik Powell and his suddenly magical toe. But consider the following things happened: A punt was fielded in the end zone, then BROUGHT OUT OF THE END ZONE; Rutgers returned a kickoff for a touchdown; As Wazzu tried to kill the clock to make one last defensive stand to ice the game, Rutgers housed the dang punt with under two minutes to go. None of this is acceptable. What is it going to take to field a competent special teams unit?
5. The visiting section was seated high in the upper level, towards the end zone where the student section was. This was a good thing, in that it allowed us to see everything that was happening on the field very easily. It also magnified some of the issues Luke Falk has. Some are big, most are detail-oriented things that are small, but taken together can be fatal.
6. Here's one: There were thirteen (13) players on the field when WSU lined up on the play that would become the game-winner. And it took them a hot second to get off the field -- one got off relatively fast, and the second player is the one Falk caught with the snap. There were opportunities to catch Rutgers jumping, or confused, that just weren't taken advantage of. Being able to recognize this and take advantage is a big deal. Something similar happened in the third quarter: Rutgers lined up a DB short to cover three receivers and burned a timeout with its defense confused. Get the ball quick-snapped and the receiver walks into the end zone.
You'll hear about tempo a lot. Tempo isn't meant to just move the ball fast, but to cause confusion, catch the defense trying to quick sub, and to put players out of position. It's not just running the offense fast, but running it smart and with a purpose. It needs to be done in such a way that everyone on the offense is on the same page and able to make adjustments -- like snapping quick -- to catch and take advantage of players out of position. It takes time for everyone to develop the "wink and nod" chemistry, and it's just not there yet.
7. I get the feeling Falk was pulled aside at halftime and told "pull the damn trigger on the seam." Rutgers played pretty close to the same defense all game: two deep safeties playing man and a half on the outside. This left the seam wide open, and Leach sent players flying up it all game long. In the first half, Falk hit the underneath routes. In the second half, right off the bat, he started pulling the trigger on the post in the seam. It worked, as expected. Nice little adjustment.
8, Points were left on the field. I won't highlight them all but one stood out: In the fourth quarter, Washington State had been working setup plays. This leads to a very high-stakes situation: You get one shot to take those setup plays and beat the defense with the play you've been building towards. Miss and you don't get another chance; you've tipped your hand. Washington State used a couple runs to Wicks on the drive, then, on 2nd and 3 inside the red zone, sold a play action and had Tyler Baker wide open down the seam for a touchdown. Falk missed the throw and WSU kicked the field goal. You don't get a shot to do that again.
9. Let's talk about the offensive line. It looks … hey, it looks really good so far. Falk had time again this week, and the line picked up blitzes and line games just fine. There were also some holes to exploit in the run game and the running back screen, with linemen getting out in front, has been deadly this year. Strong work by the big fellas so far.
10. The running backs have also been a revelation. They got fewer chances running the ball, but Wicks and Keith Harrington made their presence felt when they did get touches, especially in the passing game. Both run hard, and they compliment each other well: Wicks will run a defense over, and Harrington will blow by it with some shifty moves. Those screen passes to Harrington are absolutely deadly.
11. For the second week in a row, the Washington State defense was adjusted right out of the game at halftime. Rutgers took the first half data, and simplified its offense down to essentially three plays: A stretch, a counter, and a play action boot. And then they hammered these plays while marching down the field. There's a theme here: To take advantage of over-pursuit, Rutgers used the stretch to allow the running back to wait for someone to over-pursue before planting and turning upfield. The counter did the same thing: Get the defense to flow to one side of the field, but break the ball back the other way. Same with the boot, except it added a passing element. Washington State was basically powerless to stop it. This is a problem.
12. But Jeremiah Allison looks like a force in the middle. On a team that has struggled to pursue and tackle, Allison has become a rock right in the middle of the defense. That goes a long way towards clogging the middle of the field, and might be a big reason why Rutgers tried to work the edges. Allison still finished with 11 tackles and was all over the place.
13. Hi Isaac Dotson.
14. The defensive line looked much improved. Outside of some missed run fits and over-pursuit from the front seven, the line look strong and fast, and got plenty of pressure. There were some issues -- schematically, Rutgers exploited the weak side by working the edges and washing the smaller BUCK out of the play in the second half, for instance. But the defensive line did get after it, and some of the line games up front left players running free at the quarterback, in his face as he threw, or forcing him into poor throws because he was running for his life. This is what the defensive line should look like, and if the front seven can clean up its run fits, there's hope.
15. Washington State fans might just be the best around. We showed up to the PreGame "tailgate," an alumni association at a brewery downtown. The place was already fairly packed by the time we got there, about three and a half hours before kick. An hour later and it was filled to "fire marshall says no more" capacity. Strong move doing this at a brewery: It takes a place that brews their own alcohol to prevent Wazzu fans from drinking an establishment dry. Doesn't mean they didn't give it a run though.
There are some positives to take out of this game. The passing game got on track, and pretty much every position group on the offensive side of the ball performed well. Falk completed passes 10 different receivers. Gabe Marks and River Cracraft were each over 100 yards receiving, and both look unguardable. But the offense is only 1/3 of the game.
This game reaffirmed my believe that this is what Washington State under Leach is -- and it's not a shocking revelation. The offense is going to get its shots in, and players are going to be open. If it's clicking, it'll put up points in a hurry. The defense forced three turnovers, too, which is exactly what you want. But this is a defense that is going to get gashed, and has to hang on and hope that it can force a turnover. The special teams have been, and will continue to be, an absolute disaster.
All of this is to say that Washington State football games will never be comfortable, and I'm not sure the defense and special teams will ever improve enough to make things comfortable. I don't know that there's any solution, and that's both scary and disheartening. There is talent on this team, but the mistakes for a team that's not really all that young anymore are maddening.
This is why we drink.