In addition to all the historical dragons that WSU is slaying and leaving for dead by the side of the road, one of the most fun parts of this crazy win streak has been watching the Cougs erase a series of yeah, buts.
“Yeah, but they lost to an FCS school.”
“Yeah, but Oregon isn’t really Oregon.”
“Yeah, but Stanford is depleted.”
One by one, as the wins have piled up, those things have diminished as potential criticisms. They’re all still true, but when a team rattles off eight consecutive victories, whatever “fluke” narratives were ascribed to the Cougs fall off to the wayside, as there is simply nothing fluky about winning that many games in a row in a power conference.
Actually, wait, there was one more.
“Yeah, but they haven’t faced a real quarterback in a month.”
I’ll admit to having been a little curious about this one myself. When you face a series of one-dimensional teams thanks to the fact that the quarterback can’t really complete a pass, that’s obviously a pretty huge advantage for the defense. And the Cougs proved (repeatedly) that they could effectively pin their ears back and stuff the run before getting after inexperienced/ineffective QBs who were trying to convert third downs while behind the sticks.
But it did leave me wondering how the team would fare against a legitimate QB. And we definitely got our answer on Saturday.
Sure, Davis Webb threw for 425 yards, a number that seems pretty huge at first blush. And I’m not going to say it’s not a big number, especially given that his yards per attempt was north of 8.0, thanks in large part to a pair of long passes totaling 100 yards on their own.
However, so many of those yards were accumulated moving the ball up and down the field before drives just stalled. The WSU defense faced third down 14 times, yet only conceded a first down on four of those opportunities.
And that wasn’t some accident. Check out the chart to the right. The Golden Bears’ average third down distance was nearly eight yards. On third-and-long, which made up nearly half their opportunities, they converted just twice. One of those was that ridiculous 59-yarder on 3rd-and-23; outside of that completion, Webb was just 1-of-8 for 6 yards on third down, which included an interception in the end zone by Nate DeRider. The Cougs only managed one sack, but they were able to consistently make Webb uncomfortable with pressure, and for the most part, that meant forcing Webb into inaccurate throws.
A huge part of the reason for the average third down distance was that the defense, despite facing a QB it had to respect, was still awesome against the run: Cal’s running backs gained just 108 yards on 28 carries -- less than 4 yards a carry. And if we go back to the third downs one more time, consider this: WSU didn’t give up a single conversion on 3rd-and-4-or-less. In fact, WSU faced 3rd-and-1 three times. Cal’s total yards? Minus-two.
So, no, the final yardage totals won’t make anyone stand up and say WOW WHAT A DOMINANT PERFORMANCE. This isn’t yet a dominant unit; you don’t get to that until you can regularly physically impose your will all over the field. But holding Cal to 21 points — fewer than either Washington or USC or anyone else allowed to the Golden Bears this season — is pretty danged awesome, and should erase the notion that this win streak has been largely fueled by circumstance.
Now, it’s on to the final yeah, but.
“Yeah, but the Cougars haven’t actually played anybody.”
Let’s just go ahead and erase that one this weekend.
What We Liked
I mentioned in the recap that WSU’s offensive performance felt “workmanlike,” despite piling up 654 yards and 56 points. I now feel like that’s an odd way to characterize what turned out to be the sixth-most yards gained in school history, though. (It’s actually more yards than the Cougs gained the week before in dropping 69 on Arizona.)
I think I figured out a couple of reasons why it felt less amazing than it should have.
First, there was a lack of big plays in the passing game. The longest reception went for 35 yards (to Isaiah Johnson-Mack). The next longest? A couple of 22-yarders. River Cracraft had one for 21. Gabe Marks had one for 20. Those yards pile up, but they also don’t make you sit up and go WOOOOOOOOOOW.
The other was that about 40 percent of the yards came on the ground, which never feels quite as flashy. And, again — with the exception of Gerard Wicks’ 59-yarder in the fourth quarter — it was mostly chunk plays rather than home runs.
I’m amazed that we’ve gotten to a point where 650 yards and 56 points feels like, “yeah, ok, that was pretty neat!” rather than “wow we just witnessed one of the great offensive days in Cougar history!”* I like that.
*It probably also is colored by the fact that these teams played the game they played two years ago, when we got to see what a real crazy Air Raid performance looked like.
When DeRider intercepted Webb in the end zone, I had to do a double take — 54? Who’s 54?
Oh, you know ... just another current or former walk on making a huge play for WSU in a critical moment. And he wasn’t even the first one on Saturday to do so!
That honor would go to Kaleb Fossum, who took back WSU’s first punt return for a touchdown in more than a decade to give the Cougars a 7-0 lead before the offense even stepped foot on the field. He earned Pac-12 special teams player of the week honors for the effort.
DeRider, meanwhile, had stepped in for Isaac Dotson, who left the game with a (naturally) unspecified injury. The junior, who had totaled 15 tackles in his career before Saturday — the vast majority on special teams — grabbed the interception when defensive coordinator Alex Grinch called for the linebackers to drop hard and clog up the middle of the field with a zone.
Instead of finding a receiver wide open breaking to the inside, as he had earlier, Webb lofted a perfectly catchable ball right into DeRider’s hands, which he secured with little problem, and even felt confident enough to bring out of the end zone. (He ended up at the 21-yard-line.)
How incredible is it that this team keeps getting contributions from everywhere?
What Needs Work?
We’re reaching Andre Dillard False Start™ status at this point. C’mon Andre!
The Cougs travel to Boulder, Colorado, for the most important game of the season against the No. 12 Buffaloes. Kickoff is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. PT on BIG FOX. If WSU comes out and wins the game, a whole lot of people are going to see and believe.
(Side note: I’ll be there! If you happen to be at the Cougar function on Saturday morning, come say hi!)