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The Monday After: Let’s just see how this plays out

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Starting the season 0-2 is clearly suboptimal, but let’s be honest: All of this team’s goals are still in front of them for the taking.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Boise State Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

You know what nine wins gets you at a school that hadn’t won that many games in a season in a decade?

A lot of equity.

At least, it does for me. So many people seem to be waiting for me to be outraged about the team starting 0-2 and call for the coach to be fired*. Maybe I used up all my outrage last year, but mostly, I just can’t bring myself to take my toes right up to the cliff again when we’re on the heels of a season where the team recovered from losing to an FCS team to win eight regular season games plus a bowl game.

*Remember, “fire everyone” WAS A JOKE, PEOPLE. OK, maybe I was 10 percent serious. Fine, maybe 20 percent. Whatever. I was MOSTLY kidding. Mostly.

And it seems a lot of you feel the same way. I don’t have any way to quantify this, but anecdotally, it sure seems like the collective psyche of the fanbase is in a much more peaceful place than a year ago, even though the team is now a game behind last year’s pace.

Perhaps it’s simply familiarity. Perhaps it’s the tyranny of low expectations.

For me, it’s simply about this: There isn’t a reasonable goal that fans thought this team could achieve this season that it can’t still accomplish. Well, unless you thought this team had a legit chance to get into the College Football Playoff. In that case, yeah, that’s out the window. I suppose if you were holding your breath for a visit from ESPN’s College GameDay, then yeah — that dream likely has died, too.

But all the other goals that we all held high hopes for — Pac-12 championship, Rose Bowl appearance — remain very much attainable, at least in terms of being literally possible.

Of course, this glosses over the fact that WSU already has lost to a pair of teams that are presumably inferior to Stanford, Oregon and Washington, which would usually lead fans to quickly conclude its team’s chances of winning a major conference championship are somewhere between “WSU winning a season opener under Mike Leach” and “WSU beating Washington in the Apple Cup under Mike Leach.”

Still ... nine wins ... with only a missed field goal keeping the Cougs from a 10th victory — and a spot in the the Pac-12 Championship.

No, this team doesn’t look nearly as good out of the gate as we expected. However, I don’t think it takes Crimson-colored glasses to conclude WSU looks a lot better than it looked at this time last year, despite being a game off the pace.

Of course that doesn’t mean this team’s about to rip off eight of their last 10. Each season is a special snowflake, this year’s team is not last year’s team, etc. etc. etc.

But could this team rip off eight of 10?

Maybe?

That’s what last season does for you, even if another run like that would appear to be pretty unlikely, based on the evidence to date. But it appeared (to me, anyway) to be pretty damn unlikely after four games last season.

At that point, I couldn’t even visualize what a turnaround might look like. This year, I feel like I can see it, perhaps (again) because of last season.

I can envision a team led by a version of Luke Falk who finally realizes it’s ok to throw more than 10 yards down field on occasion, who understands that contested ball isn’t always an unwise throw. I can envision a team where Hercules Mata’afa starts getting after the quarterback. I can envision a team where the linebackers start wreaking havoc again. I can envision a team where Erik Powell is hitting big field goals.

Leach and his staff obviously have some coaching to do to get them there, but last year’s turnaround leaves me confident that they’re a good enough staff to get their message through. Leach lamented the team’s lack of “toughness” after the game, and then he went on to decry his team’s participation trophy mentality at his weekly teleconference today.

While I often think those kinds of catch-all phrases are a sort of crutch for coaches, Leach obviously has seen things in these first two games he didn’t want to see, or didn’t see things he wanted to see. I don’t really much care if he articulates it well (although he did expand quite a bit on it today); all I really care about is that they can get it fixed. And they certainly have a plan to get it fixed, via Jacob Thorpe at The Spokesman-Review:

“We run out of bounds more than any team in the country,” Leach said. “We’re the easiest team in the country to tackle.”

Then, Leach described his prescribed treatment, which will involve shuffling of the starting lineup, more drills and “significantly louder verbal instruction,” along with potentially “elevated contact.”

At the time of Leach’s weekly Monday press conference, the Cougars had only had one practice: The short workout the Cougars have after every Sunday, except when the team plays well enough to earn the night off.

According to running back Jamal Morrow, the Sunday night practice following the Boise State loss had a different feel.

“We had a padded practice yesterday, so that’s probably step one of (Leach’s plan to instill toughness),” Morrow said. “It was more physical. More up-pace.”

It lands squarely on the coaching staff that the team wasn’t ready for the first two games. There’s no getting around that. And Leach acknowledged as much:

“It all starts with coaching. We have this assumption that they know stuff, but as coaches we have to be smart enough and disciplined enough to get that out of our heads,” Leach said on Monday. “They don’t know anything. We wouldn’t be re-teaching the same stuff we did last year if we could trust any level of retention. We can’t. We have to be smart enough and disciplined enough as coaches to not suggest or assume they know anything.”

But there’s also no getting around that this staff was able to push the right buttons a year ago, and because of that, I’m willing to wait around and see if they can push the right buttons again before I completely freak out.

I’m just really glad that the Cougars’ next two opponents are Idaho and B-Y-E. Makes it a little less risky to conduct an attitude adjustment on the fly.


What We Liked

How can we not like the improvement of the defense? Giving up just 24 points to an offense that is supposed to be pretty good — while taking the ball away three times — is a pretty nice rebound from last week’s mess. (For what it’s worth, S&P+ ranks the Broncos 27th nationally in offense, if you’re into that sort of thing.)

Much was made during the broadcast (if you left the volume up and listened to Rod Gilmore) of defensive coordinator Alex Grinch coming down out of the booth and to the sidelines. I have no idea how much of a difference that actually made, and I won’t pretend to know, but it obviously didn’t hurt.

It wasn’t a perfect performance by any means. The Cougs still gave up 420 yards at 6.9 yards per play. The turnovers definitely had a huge impact, and Boise State didn’t do itself any favors with how Bryan Harsin managed the final 10 minutes of the game. They even started to get a little bit of penetration and pressure on the QB in down the stretch.

But this was a solid step forward. Now go put the screws to Idaho.

Who Impressed

PJ went for the offense, so I’ll go for the other main candidate — from the defense, which makes sense given the previous section.

Boy, did we miss you, Shalom Luani.

Two interceptions? I don’t know whether to be more pissed off that he missed the Eastern game or more happy that we have him now. I guess I’ll just try and live in the moment and be happy now.


What Needs Work

The offense has to be better. Has to be.

I presume that’s a lot of what Leach is talking about in his comments today, given how I know his focus is generally on the offense. The raw yardage numbers looked fine — 520 yards, 100 yards more than Boise State — but it came at a paltry 5.7 yards per play.

For his part, Luke Falk averaged just 6.8 yards per attempt; the 480 yards looks great, until you realize it took 71 attempts for him to get there. Frankly, Falk looks like much the same quarterback as he was at the beginning of last year: Hanging onto the ball too long, reluctant to push it down the field, content to simply dump it off underneath over and over again.

Leach and Falk obviously noticed the same thing we did with the lack of action to Tavares Martin at the X against Eastern, so that was a positive development on Saturday. But it took Falk until the game was needing a quick comeback before he actually took some shots and gave his receivers a chance to make some plays; he was at 5.2 yards per attempt in the first half, before bumping up to 8.1 in the second half, thanks in large part to a pair of long TDs.

I know part of Falk’s attraction is that he’s Mr. Steady, and that he Takes What The Defense Gives Him, but at some point, you have to be willing to consistently attack all parts of the field, if only to make the defense believe you will. There came a point last year where he was willing to do that. Maybe he just doesn’t trust his guys enough. I don’t know.

But we know that explosive plays correlate strongly with points, and as much as we all thought last year’s offense pretty decent, it was thoroughly mediocre in the points per game category. When you’re not explosive, you need more successful plays to get into the end zone. And with more successful plays means more opportunities for a colossal failure to occur. Like, say, on the 12th play of a game opening drive that has spanned a mere 57 yards.

The Cougs stayed on the right side of that thin margin for most of last season. It’s not working out so well this time, but I think it’s clear that WSU has the playmakers so that it doesn’t have to stay that way — if the QB will get the ball into those guys’ hands.