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WSU vs. Stanford: How the Cougars are burying teams now

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Two weeks in a row, Washington State has buried a recent Pac-12 power. It’s not all that surprising, and the Cougars are doing it in a simple way.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Stanford Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

This weekend was the test. After feeling around in the dark during the non-conference schedule, Washington State once again came out and took it to Oregon — this time right out of the bye instead of a week after like in 2015. But again, like 2015, Stanford stood in the way as the prove it game.

The Cougars proved it, and completely dominated the Cardinal in the process. You can exhale for a moment: Washington State is, as you expected in the offseason, a very good football team.

It took a minute to get here, and even if you had Washington State at 3-2 at this point in the season, you probably didn’t have the how. Losses to Eastern Washington and Boise State are the two. And the three part of that record? A punishing three wins by a combined 149-55 score — the last two of which came over Oregon and Stanford in completely dominating fashion.

Sure, we’ll concede the Ducks and Cardinal aren’t what they’ve been over the past decade. With that, one must concede that neither is Washington State, and that even if the Pac-12 powers from Palo Alto and Eugene are rebuilding, the Cougs could have never imagined doing something like this.

How it happened this weekend was vintage (2015, aged) Mike Leach football. Luke Falk threw 41 passes and was north of 300 yards with four touchdowns.* They ran the ball, too: another two touchdowns on the ground and just enough rushes to keep Stanford honest while breaking out the occasional long one.

*A Falk injury can derail the Cougars season real fast, and he probably played out the second half with some kind of left knee injury. Knee aside, please get down and don’t take unnecessary shots. Sliding is good, but sliding so late that a defender can tee off (illegally) defeats the purpose.

And, of course, the defense. In Week 1, and through the first few weeks, the Washington State defense looked tentative, even out of sorts. It wasn’t aggressive, nor was it created any kind of pressure. Since the bye, that’s changed dramatically.

Alex Grinch’s defense is back to flying around. They’re moving late to confuse, shooting gaps and attacking the backfield, and simply playing more physical. Saturday brought four more sacks, three more interceptions, and a whole lot of pain for Stanford skill players. After years of being pounded on by the Cardinal’s bulldozer offense, the Cougars whipped it up front all night.

An important note: Christian McCaffrey was nowhere to be found. Washington State, dominating the line of scrimmage, completely shut him down to the tune of 35 rushing yards (20 coming on one play) and 5 receiving yards, while holding his all-purpose yardage (including kick returns) to 83. By the middle of the third quarter, McCaffrey was sidelined with an injury, and the Cardinal had no answer for the Cougar defense.

***

If you want to zoom in to specific parts of the last two games to analyze, look at the third quarters. They’ve always felt like a rough spot for the Cougars.

But take a look at how the second half played out for Washington State on Saturday.

Washington State's second half play by play chart

Washington State had the ball for about 10 minutes in the third quarter. The Stanford defense came out of the half down 21-3 and had to stand on the field for 10 minutes as the Cougars kept coming right at them. It breaks a team, and as the quarter played out, it was clear Stanford just wanted to go home and crawl into bed.

This is familiar now, too.

Washington State's play by play against Oregon

Last weekend, the Cougars did the same thing to Oregon. There were mistakes in the quarter, like a turnover on downs deep in Oregon territory, that also led to the Ducks defense quickly being sent back out onto the field (safety dance). Oregon’s defense spent 12 minutes on the field and, like the Cardinal this week, looked like it wanted to just go home.

Finishing a game doesn’t just mean a strong surge in the fourth quarter. It’s the work put into it before then, leaning on an opponent over the first three quarters and just chipping away. The Cougars are doing that, both with long, efficient drives and a defense that has been getting itself right back off the field one way or another (good or bad outcome). When it’s all working, it gets exhausting to play against.

***

You’re also wondering why this is happening, and why now. The past two seasons, it feels as though Leach is following a similar path: Slow start, bye week to regroup, and then everything starts to come together.

What I think may be happening is, again, reflective of Leach and how the staff operates. College football is interesting in that each year brings quite a bit of turnover, and the opportunity to reboot in the offseason. But you don’t really know what you have until you start playing actual games against actual teams. You don’t know if it’s safe to shoot gaps and sell out on the defensive line; or if the linebackers can fill the right holes;or if the secondary can cover well enough to make it all work in front of them; or if the offensive line can hold a block for more than a beat; or if the run game ... actually works. So you run out what you have in Week 1, see how it does, and hope adjustments work.

That includes attitude, too. These are college kids, which makes the game so unpredictable.* And clearly after the first few weeks Leach felt the team was playing tentative, scared, and just not the way they should be. So he said so. Bluntly, as he tends to do.

*Remember this while you’re feeling excited and also looking for explanations about the bad things that have happened this season. The simplest, silliest explanation is usually true. In this case it’s: College kids.

The thing with the test and iterate cycle is that sometimes the initial tests look awful. Eastern and Boise State were those early, haphazard experiments, but also remember that the Cougars lost those game by a combined six points. If your expectation was “world beater” this was a disastrous start. If it was “talented, but need to figure this out,” it wasn’t all that stressful.

The pieces have been there the whole time, but they needed some time and game experience to come together. You’ve seen what happens when they do, and Oregon and Stanford felt what happens. This is a Washington State team that can do a lot of damage in a lot of ways. It’s a team that smacked Oregon in the mouth until the Ducks rolled over and gave up, then did the same to Stanford — STANFORD — on the road.

And right on schedule, Washington State is one of the scariest teams to play. Again.