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The Monday After: It happened AGAIN??? edition

WSU lost to another FCS school — this time, the slightly more respectable Eastern Washington — and maybe it’s time to take a hard look at why these things keep happening.

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Eastern Washington v Washington State Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

Mike Leach is nothing, if not consistent, right?

Amid all the redundant Happy And Healthies, the quirky!!! responses to off-the-wall questions and the predictability of the ball flying through the air every four out of five plays, we also get this:

WSU is 1-8 under Leach in the first and last games of the regular season.

Think about what it does to a fan base to consistently lose your team’s two most anticipated games of every season. In the former, your fans have been fixating on for eight or nine months while waiting for the new season to begin; in the latter, your fans actually never stop fixating.

And the Cougars have’t just consistently lost those games; they’ve consistently played poorly in each of them — particularly recently. Consider:

August 30, 2012: WSU loses at BYU, 30-6
We were all so excited(!!!!!!!) to have Mike Leach as our coach! (CAN YOU BELIEVE MIKE LEACH IS ACTUALLY OUR COACH???!!?!??!!?) All WSU could muster was a pair of field goals while getting outgained by 200 yards. Oh well, he’s a new coach! Need to be patient!

November 23, 2012: WSU beats Washington, 31-28 (OT)
Ah, yes. The lone win in the bunch! After losing nine of the first 11 games in Leach’s initial season, all it took was UW puking up an 18-point fourth quarter lead under a barrage of penalties, a missed 35-yard field goal as time expired and one of the most ill-advised pass attempts you’ll ever see for it to happen. Still, WE WON SUCK IT HUSKIES.

August 31, 2013: WSU loses at Auburn, 31-24
The Cougs actually played pretty well in this one, holding a lead in the second quarter, trailing by four at halftime, and having a chance to tie the game near the end before a Connor Halliday interception ended it. Promising start to the season.

November 29, 2013: WSU loses at Washington, 27-17
Another game in which the Cougs didn’t generally play all that bad. WSU led 10-3 at halftime before being outscored 24-7 the rest of the way as Bishop Sankey ran around and through the Cougs. Not the worst way to head into the New Mexico Bowl.

August 28, 2014: WSU loses to Rutgers in Seattle, 41-38
A typical mistake-filled Seattle affair — leading, mercifully, to the cancellation of the annual fixture. Halliday threw for 532 yards and 5 touchdowns and his team somehow lost. Little did we know what that meant.

November 29, 2014: WSU loses to Washington at home, 31-13
Luke Falk’s first Apple Cup, as Halliday is out with a broken leg. WSU is uncompetitive for three quarters, falling behind 31-0. Just the latest in a string of embarrassments this season.

September 5, 2015: WSU loses to Portland State at home, 24-17
It was raining. It was cold. And the players played as if they didn’t really want to be out there as PSU — an FCS bottom feeder — used what seemed like 14 different quarterbacks to do whatever it wanted. A season that seems as if it has promise is off to an ominous start.

November 27, 2015: WSU loses at Washington, 45-10
Well, what do you know! The season has turned out pretty great, with eight wins already in our collective pocket. However, with WSU turning to a backup at QB for the second consecutive year, it again doesn’t turn out well. Despite some early promising drives, the game devolves in a hurry as WSU turns the ball over seven times, three of which end up returned for TDs. But we were missing Luke Falk, right?

September 3, 2016: WSU loses to Eastern Washington at home, 45-42
Total. Defensive. Debacle. But hey, EWU plays everyone tough! They were bound to get one!

Taken individually, there’s really only one result in here that’s completely inexcusable. Even this past weekend, everyone knew EWU was dangerous, despite our unwavering belief that WSU was the better team. And I still think WSU is the better team, which is to take nothing away from Eastern, just as Oregon and UCLA — which probably were better teams than WSU last year — can take nothing away from our victory.

But taken on the whole? It really begs the question: Why does the team stink in these particular games? In non-first-and-last-of-the-season games, the Cougs are 20-22 under Leach!

Doesn’t there have to be something in that horrible record?

I don’t know Leach personally, so I won’t pretend to know what he’s thinking about this, but given what I’ve been able to publicly observe about him, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if he’s paying no mind to any of it, chalking it up to randomness or whatever. He’s going to do what he’s going to do.

But I really wonder if “we’re going to do what we’re going to do” is part of what is playing into this.

Leach preaches to his players to focus on the job at hand, play the next play, don’t get too high or too low emotionally. I think it’s precisely that philosophy that allowed the team to come back from numerous fourth quarter deficits to pile up nine wins in a season that easily could have spiraled out of control at a couple of different points.

That said, the Cougs also often seem to lack an edge, particularly in these two games. These are games in which you’ve got to rise to the emotional level of the opponent, and so often the Cougs instead seem nervous and tentative. Portland State and EWU play as if they’ve got nothing to lose. Washington plays as if it would be a personal affront to its collective manhood to lose to Washington State.

And instead of hitting back ... WSU shrinks back.

I’m hopeful that WSU’s ability to flush a poor performance has remained intact, because the Cougs are about to play another team for whom beating WSU is its everything. And we already know it’s possible to dig out of this hole, so there’s no reason to completely panic about losing to Eastern.

But I’m also hopeful that maybe Leach will think long and hard about how he prepares his teams for these games. You only get 12 games, and punting the first and last ones seems like an inefficient way to get where you want to be.

P.S.: For what it’s worth, if you read the recap Saturday night, no, I do not want everyone fired. Finishing my recap with “fire everyone” was a bit of a joke, an apparently poorly executed one that was a nod to the previous year’s season-opening recap, which finished in the same fashion. Guess I should have written JUST KIDDING I DON’T REALLY WANT HIM FIRED.

What We Liked

How about those sick new gray helmets?

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

Gone is the shiny concrete look; in is a satin(?) kind of finish that isn’t quite the full matte finish that’s been all the rage the last couple of years. I’ve been saying for some time that our previous gray helmets looked incredibly high schoolish; these come about as close as you possibly can to matching the gray on the jerseys. Plus, crimson face masks!

Well done, whoever is responsible. Well done!

(Now, do something about the metallic crimson helmets.)

Who Impressed

Gabe Marks, who was everything he always is. Honorable mentions to Jamal Morrow and Gerrard Wicks, who ran exceptionally tough when their number was called.

What Needs To Improve

Well, that traveshamockery of a defense comes to mind.

I don’t think there are any of us who fooled ourselves into thinking this was going to be a dominant unit, and again, we all believed Eastern was going to move the ball. But I think we all also believed the defense would offer some kind of resistance.

Instead, the Cougs gave up 606(!!!) yards to a team led by a sophomore QB starting his first game. At one point late in the game, that sophomore was 30-of-34 for 426 yards. Completely, totally, 100 percent inexcusable.

Yes, WSU was starting a pair of new safeties. Yes, WSU was breaking in a bunch of new guys on the defensive front.

So what? EWU was breaking in a new quarterback and an entirely new offensive line. The Cougars really should have been able to fluster the Eagles.

Instead, Beau Baldwin took Alex Grinch’s lunch money, using his months of time to prepare a game plan that completely dictated the game. WSU played the kind of soft coverage it did all last season, inviting easy completions that turned into bigger-than-necessary gains thanks to poor tackling.

Either WSU simply got tired of rallying to the ball, or its patty cake style is indicative of the Cougs taking the Eagles less seriously than they professed. Neither is a good look.

I expect the tackling will get better, and I expect the safety play will get better (although, having a starter out because of a senseless targeting penalty won’t help in the first two quarters this week). Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has shown he can coach em’ up as the season goes along. But the near-complete lack of a pass rush against a smallish offensive line is concerning, and Darrien Molten and Co. didn’t exactly comport themselves well on the outside.

I truly thought the secondary would be a strength, which led me to think that maybe it would mitigate the replacements up front. Now I’m questioning everything.

The team rapidly improved defensively after the first 10 quarters last season. Let’s hope it doesn’t take anywhere near that long for Grinch to get things sorted out this season, or Saturday is going to be embarrassing.