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The Monday After: What did we miss in predicting the 2016 WSU Cougars?

OK, yes, it’s Thursday. But sometimes you just need a couple of extra days to put your thoughts together. Plus, it’s not like there’s a game on Saturday, anyway!

Idaho v Washington State Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

Some guy who used to coach a football team (before he quit on the players he recruited and coaches he hired, God rest his soul) once said that being a Coug was great, preparing you well for life because you learned not to expect too much. When I was growing up as a Husky fan, I thought that was pretty funny! Then I went to college and I became a Coug and I wanted to punch anyone who said it in the face.

(Which — TAKE NOTE, COUGAR FOOTBALL TEAM — I did not do. And continue to not do.)

There’s a kernel of truth in it, though, even if it’s silly to limit it to WSU; it’s really just sports in general that prepare most of us fans for disappointment. I mean, the vast majority of fans finish their seasons unsatisfied to some degree. Between the teams that don’t make bowl games and the teams that lose their bowl games and the teams that win their bowl games but had legitimate conference championship aspirations that they failed to meet ... I mean, that’s a lot of disappointed fans!

Of course, there are those fan bases that seem to get a swift kick to the undercarriage more frequently than others, and WSU probably falls in that category, as do many schools that are traditional “have nots” in the college football world. We don’t often have the opportunity to get our hopes up for seemingly legitimate reasons, so coming into the 2016 season, we allowed ourselves to do just that:

Median predicted wins of 15 writers from a corner of the internet reputed to be more pessimistic than its counterparts: Nine. NINE! We teased PJ for his 7-win prediction. That’s pretty funny now!

To tell the truth, I’m not at all embarrassed by my prediction. I don’t feel at all silly, and I will make exactly zero apologies for allowing myself to dream big. It’s so rare that we get to feel justifiably excited about WSU’s prospects, I wanted to just enjoy it for a little while, even if it didn’t turn out that way in the end. Was it ever actually likely that WSU would win 10 games? Of course not. But that was never really the point, at least for me.

It was more about communicating my belief in the potential of this group, which was driven by what I thought were a few reasonable assumptions, including some moderate improvement by the offense under a quarterback who was still mastering the Air Raid, and a pretty big step forward by the defensive secondary, which was solid last year and returned a number of presumably talented and still-maturing players.

I guess those weren’t really reasonable assumptions, which is how you go from “10 wins or bust” to “can this team even get to six wins?” after three games.

Let’s talk first about Luke Falk. To the casual observer, Falk is doing what he does:

Passing Table
Year Class G Cmp Att Pct Yds Y/A AY/A TD Int Rate
*2015 SO 12 447 644 69.4 4561 7.1 7.7 38 8 145.9
2016 JR 3 117 158 74.1 1124 7.1 7.9 11 2 154.3
Career 720 1045 68.9 7544 7.2 7.7 62 17 145.9
Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 9/21/2016.

The numbers look fine — perhaps even slightly better, depending on how hard you want to squint. But there are a couple of things going on here. One, from a purely statistical standpoint, you’d expect him to have produced at a higher level this season than last year’s average, simply because the average competition through three games in 2016 has been substantially lower than than the average competition across the entire 2015 season.

But for those of us who have watched every snap of every game, we know the numbers don’t tell the whole story right now. For whatever reason, Falk has regressed from where he was before he suffered his head injury at the end of 2015, returning to this kind of stuff where he holds the ball and holds the ball and holds the ball and HOLDS THE BALL and then finally dumps off to someone underneath for a modest gain.

Now, I understand this is part of the deal with Falk. He’s about risk management with his throws, which is fine, and there’s going to be some trade off with that in terms of big plays. It’s why the advanced metrics didn’t particularly like WSU’s offense last season, which I thought was a bit misguided; if you’re consistently gaining a minimum of 5-6 yards on every completion, and you’re completing 3 out of every 4 passes, then that’s a recipe for a ruthlessly relentless offense that chips away at the defense paper cut by paper cut before finally landing in the end zone. And WSU did generally land in the end zone: Despite what Rod Gilmore* repeated ad nauseam in the broadcast against Boise State, WSU was a perfectly respectable 35th nationally in red zone touchdown percentage, and was second nationally in overall red zone scoring percentage.

*This just in: Rod Gilmore is bad at his job.

Still, we knew the offense had to get at least a bit more explosive to live up to the true potential of the Air Raid and propel this 2016 to the heights we believed were possible. The evidence is overwhelming that teams with more big plays on offense and fewer big plays on defense win more games, and given WSU’s thin margins last season, getting some more big plays from the offense seemed like a logical next step to ensure this team was solid to (at least) eight or nine wins in 2016.

That hasn’t happened. And I’m not sure why Falk seems to have slipped back into old habits; my own personal theory is that with months to scout and prepare, defensive coordinators are now like major league pitchers who have seen what that hot shot rookie can do after three months and have figured out the holes in his swing — there’s a blueprint now, and they’re throwing the kinds of looks at him that give him pause. And pause. And more pause.

I have no idea if that’s actually true, but at this point, it seems like a reasonable theory since Falk should be beyond the sort of indecisiveness that’s plaguing him. In that way, I think the bye week actually comes at the perfect time for the offense. Falk looks like a guy who badly needs to do some self scouting without the pressure of preparing for the next opponent. Time to adjust to the adjustments. And I believe in his ability to do so.

As far as the defensive secondary is concerned, I think it’s telling that WSU is still playing the same kind of soft coverage it did last year in an effort to limit big plays, particularly after getting shredded by Eastern Washington. Much of that EWU performance was laid at the feet of Shalom Luani and his absence, but let’s be honest: The corners didn’t comport themselves well in that game, either.

It leads me to think that maybe the talent level in the secondary just isn’t as high as I thought it was. As frustrating as it is for fans to watch a 5-yard completion on 3rd-and-4 when the corners give a 10-yard cushion, particularly against a team such as Idaho, I prefer to look at it a bit differently: How frustrating must it be for defensive coordinator Alex Grinch to feel like that’s they type of coverage he has to call, explained only by his lack of belief in the ability of the players on the field to stick with a receiver? His play calls are telling, I think.

This is particularly problematic because I hoped the secondary could mask some anticipated issues on the defensive line. Most of those concerns have come to fruition — WSU has two (2!!!) sacks through three games, despite each of the Cougs’ opponents throwing it 35 or more times. So far, the secondary hasn’t been able to stand up to the increased responsibility. (And things probably are only going to get worse, since I don’t think many expulsions get overturned.)

Maybe it’s Grinch’s own fault his players aren’t better, particularly since he’s the secondary coach. I don’t know. What I do know is that the secondary hasn’t been good enough, and I hope against hope that it’s not actually an issue of talent.

I think these two things — Falk and the secondary — are holding the team back more than anything else. And while I’m still not freaking out about the ultimate result of the season (I still believe this), with 25 percent of the games in the rearview mirror, it seems pretty clear that fixing up these two areas would result in the biggest gains going forward.

What We Liked

Who doesn’t like 50-point wins, even if it takes a couple of fluky special teams TDs to get there? Plus, Paul Patrino finished another game against the Cougars totally pissed. There also didn’t appear to be any significant injuries.

Wins all around!

Who Impressed

NCAA Football: Idaho at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Boobie Williams was a revelation, but I’m going to go in a different direction here.

I absolutely loved the game that Frankie Luvu played at linebacker. The Cougs were tentative yet again versus an opponent whom they should have been able to overwhelm out of the gate — they led just 7-3 after the first quarter.

On defense, it makes the guys appear slow, which isn’t really a good look for a unit that’s supposedly predicated on speed. Too much thinking, not enough reacting.

Luvu, on the other hand, just looked like he was most interested in hitting someone, anyone on Saturday. He had a number of big collisions, and at least a couple violent tackles. It was a stark contrast to many of his teammates, and a reminder of why so many people were so high on him after his stellar Sun Bowl performance.

However, he’s been playing behind Isaac Dotson at WILL for the first three games. It will be interesting to see if his performance catches the attention of coaches, who noted before the season that consistency was needed from Luvu. Hopefully they saw enough consistency from him, because he brings a needed physical presence to the defense.

What Needs Work

Erik Powell. You are killing me, man. We’re going to need you at some point — well, other than the two games we already lost by three points where field goals were missed — so pretty please, with sugar on top: Figure it out.