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Washington State made time for an old friend: Losing to an FCS team

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

You probably should’ve expected this, right? Unless you were born into Washington State fandom last week, Saturday’s loss to an FCS team — the second in as many years to open a season — felt familiar. You walked into the season with hope, only to watch it be picked apart by a first-time starter at quarterback.

Forever, my fear was losing to an FCS team. Even in the bad years, when Paul Wulff’s teams were getting pounded by conference opponents, I kept thinking just don’t embarrass yourself against an FCS team. I don’t know why that is, but I also didn’t want to explain to coworkers and friends why my football team shouldn’t be relegated.

And that’s really one of the core anxieties of fandom. Your team can win or it can lose, but please don’t embarrass yourselves. Embarrassment can take on a variety of on- and off-field forms, but losing to an FCS team is something that isn’t fun to explain on a Monday morning.

But a funny thing happens when that ... happens. Go through it once and there’s a familiarity. I know this. I remember this. Whatever. There’s comfort in that when it happens again, no matter how bad it might be.

***

There were signs amid the hype. The Cougars played on razor thin margins in 2015. It was part of their charm — the team refused to lose, and engineered a bunch of late comebacks to pull games out of their ass. When they won, it was close. When things went wrong, they really went wrong.

Now think about what’s gone from that team. Most of the havoc on the front seven left — Destiny Vaeao, a force in the middle, is gone, along with Jeremiah Allison; all of the rush ends are gone; the defensive line is basically all new. About November of last year I had a suspicion the defense was going to fall back. The same thing happened in 2014, when the spine of the defense — Junior Gauta and Deone Bucannon, especially — needed to be replaced.

For the Cougars defense to work, they have to get pressure and cause confusion with four or five players up front. They could do that in 2015, and do it well: Don’t underestimate how much damage Vaeao and the rush ends did, and how difficult it is to replace all but 1.5 tackles for a loss. With a bunch of new players, WSU branded its defense a Speed D. It’s undersized, and if the front seven can’t shoot gaps to create pressure and confusion, it’ll get picked apart.

But the secondary was supposed to be a strength, you say. It just got picked apart by a freshman QB, and had no answer for Cooper Kupp, you add. All of this is correct, and there’s a few good reasons why it fell flat.

The first is above: Washington State’s defensive line covered up a lot with pressure last year, whether it got to the quarterback or not. It’s easier to cover receivers when the line is constantly in the face of the quarterback. Given time to read, think and throw, just about any quarterback can find an open man. It helps that Eastern has one of the best in Kupp. That’s also not to take anything away from Gage Gubrud: he looked like a calm, seasoned QB as he worked over the Washington State defense and, mostly, avoided huge mistakes.

The second is Shalom Luani. As the defensive line did up front, Luani erased a lot of mistakes on the back-end. He could come up and take away runs, including the quarterback. He was also able to drop and fill holes in coverage. Last season, Luani was the glue. His return, whenever that may happen, should help.

Finally, Beau Baldwin outcoached Washington State with a brand new offensive line. It held up well, too. Think about that: Eastern had to replace all five starters on the line, and whatever deficiencies that may have caused were mitigated by coaching and play calling ... and hey maybe the replacements were pretty good. I don’t know, but it’s impressive, even factoring in that the Cougars’ defensive line took a step back.

The Eagles offense worked the edges and made the Cougars chase. They used the quick game and got blockers out in front, getting the ball out of Gubrud’s hands as he settled in. It opened up deeper shots and holes in the middle like a chess game. And it used the aggressiveness of the undersized, but fast, Washington State defense against it. It was exactly what Leach tries to accomplish with his offense.

All of this is bad, but it’s not totally unexpected. You didn’t expect a Mike Leach team to have a consistently solid defense, did you? If nothing else, the Cougars are still completely on brand, right down to blowing an opening game.

***

The good news is that the offense is still pretty much on schedule. There are issues, sure: The line didn’t hold up well at all, even against 3- and 4-man rushes; Gabe Marks is hobbled by what looks like an ankle injury; The loss of a steady mainstay opposite Marks, formerly Dom Williams, is also noticeable (and there’s talent here that should quickly catch up).

And yet, the offense still put up 42 and picked apart the Eastern defense in spurts for decent chunks of the game. It looked exactly like a Mike Leach offense: Sputtering in the first and third quarters as it felt out what Eastern was doing, and firing on all cylinders when it got rolling. You would hope that a Leach offense could just click right away, but that’s usually not the case. It’s an experiential offense: Leach and Luke Falk probe some things to find holes, then throw haymakers until the defense adjusts (halftime) and the process resets. It’s like finding a button-mashing exploit in a video game.

But it looks fine, and can still put up points in a hurry. It ran out of real estate against Eastern — yes, you can argue this team should be too good to even be in that position — and was helped along by a missed field goal that would’ve led to a tie game. Again, this all feels familiar: Kicking mistakes, spurts of ineffectiveness, and a points-filled shootout is very Mike Leach.

***
At Washington State, Leach’s teams have followed his personality. When they get rolling it’s like a waterfall of points (words, in his case, usually on a tangent at an unexpected time). There’s a natural curiosity about them, too: I wonder how this works let’s try it and find out. This sometimes results in greatness and sometimes results in a fake punt against Cal that gets returned for a touchdown.

And there’s the experiential factor. Leach’s teams at Washington State struggle out of the gate on both a game and season level. The team as a whole, like the offense and the coach, poke around at things, do some studying, and try to piece together something coherent by trying a bunch of stuff out. Last year’s team got better as the season went, picking up experience and familiarity along the way on both sides of the ball.

The offense, though, should be just fine, so long as Luke Falk stays upright.* Even with Gabe Marks hobbled, there’s talent and weapons. The running backs are going to allow the offense to continue to evolve on both the ground and through the air, and all of this should be fun to watch.

The defense is going to struggle, too. I expect it to sort some things out, but just be prepared for a bunch of shootouts. This also follows Leach’s MO, but should be more extreme than last season.

*Get rid of the ball, Luke. I’d prefer not to continue watching your head slam against the turf. I’m worried about your brain.

***

Losing to an FCS team is bad, and it would be foolish to earnestly point at last year and say “but they can still do that again.” That’s a coping mechanism based on an anomaly. It happened once, but a whole lot of lucky breaks also happened with it.

That’s also not to say the world is over. Week 1 is a crapshoot in college football, and first impressions aren’t necessarily ones that should be lasting. Weird things happen. Losses to FCS teams happen (twice, in two years).

But there is some comfort in all of this. The loss to the FCS team is familiar. Face-planting out of the gate is familiar. Watching hope turn into disgust is familiar, too.

But the components of Leach’s team and its style are also familiar. There’s comfort in that, and hope.