When Mike Leach was hired at Washington State, athletic director Bill Moos had a whole speech and presentation prepared. It was to convey a particular message: We're investing in the football team, and we want you to join us. Moos called it the sizzle and the steak, a metaphor that he's come back to time and again. This will be an exciting brand of football, he said, and it's going to turn around.
Moos had snuck down to Key West in secret a few weeks earlier, to lure Mike Leach out of a forced retirement and bring him to Pullman. Leach was considered one of the brightest football minds, an offensive genius behind the Air Raid offense born during his time with Hal Mumme. Win or lose, the brand of football was going to be fun.
In the more than five years Leach has been in Pullman, we know what that brand of football looks like. We've seen blowout wins, comebacks, huge blown leads, bowl games and disappointment. We've seen swings wildly in both the positive and negative directions. We've been taken on a rollercoaster ride that doesn't end, nor do we necessarily want it to.
Which brings us to Saturday night in Pullman, where Washington State flailed around for 42 minutes before all hell loose. I've seen dumb, ridiculous things watching this team in the middle of the night — it's been a somewhat unexpected part of that brand of football. What happened on Saturday night, though ... well, it was probably the dumbest.
We were sold on the offense, but it was the defense that actually stepped up, hanging on just long enough to cover for a litany of mistakes on the other side of the ball. Luke Falk was so hesitant that he was benched on a night when he set the Washington State career passing yards record. That benching led to a series by Tyler Hilinski that started promising and went backwards before ending in a turnover, all as Falk anxiously watched while standing next to a clearly annoyed Leach.
wellllllllp that's pretty much everything bad that can happen on a play, Wazzu— THICC KEN (@edsbs) September 10, 2017
Falk returned on the next offensive series, down 24-10, and was quickly driven through the turf, coughing up the ball in the process. Boise State took that turnover to the house. It was 31-10 with under 11 minutes to go, and Martin Stadium was silent. Falk was done for the night, despite keeping his helmet, and it was Hilinksi's turn to try and figure something out.
Boise State had won 101 consecutive games when going up 21 or more.
There's a weird thing about these Boise State games, though. We saw it last year, when the offense was all out of rhythm for the entire game, before a frenzied comeback in the fourth that just ran out of runway. But faced with the prospect of making up 21 points — three possessions — in about 10 minutes without Luke Falk, the Cougars' record-setting quarterback? You'd be forgiven for giving up.
Yet there was Hilinski, stringing together passes and picking up yardage on chunks to cut the lead to 14. But it was the defense that really keyed things, and on the next series a defensive line that spent the entire game in Boise State's backfield hit pay dirt. Montell Cozzart was rushed, flushed, and made an ill-advised flip up 14 points late in the fourth quarter. That flip found the arms of Peyton Pelleur, who found pay dirt. In almost exact five minutes, the three touchdown lead was cut to one, and the Cougs were in business.
With 2:51 left in the game, Erik Powell, the Cougars kicker-turned-punter-at-times, drilled a Boise State blocker in the back of the head with a punt, giving the Cougars perfect field position to tie up the game. Powell jumped up and down celebrating precision that was probably an accident.
ESPN cameras panned the crowd, and if you looked closely you could see a man whip his shirt off and raise it above his head. When a shirt gets whipped off in public, it's a universal sign that something dumb is about to happen.
Four plays later, Jamal Morrow was streaking to the flat and into the end zone on a dump off. Nine minutes after a disastrous sack-fumble-injury sequence by Falk, it was tied.
And once again, the defense, the thing Leach's teams aren't supposed to be known for, came up strong. They held tight and forced a Boise State punt. In the first overtime, the held Boise State to a field goal, which the Cougars matched.
After trailing for the entire game, Washington State took its first lead as Gerard Wicks powered into the end zone from the 1. It suddenly felt like the Cougars, who tattered on the edge of disaster all night, were in control. Like they planned it this way. Like it was going exactly to script, just as Leach and company planned it.
They gave up one more touchdown then locked the Broncos down in the third overtime, forcing a field goal. To cap it off, there was Morrow in the flat on the left side one more time, taking a dump off pass, spinning inside and upfield, and racing to the pylon. On the second play of the third overtime, Morrow went airborne from inside the five, reaching, breaking the plane, and ending one of the dumbest Washington State games I've seen.
The stadium went silent on replay, and at one point the cameras found Leach, watching like the rest of the crowd. He threw his hands up and yelled "LETS GO" nonchalantly, like he knew the conclusion and was ready to go home. Seconds later that conclusion was confirmed, and Martin Stadium erupted — all while Leach kept his poker face.
The final score was 47-44. Thirty-seven of those 47 points by the Cougars were scored in the last eight minutes of the game and overtime.
This is what we signed up for when Moos signed Leach. There will be moments of frustration and inexplicable mistakes. There will be blowouts when the offense clicks, and comebacks where they dig out of a hole. And if there's just enough defense to keep the offense around — and there was plenty of defense on Saturday night — you never know what you're going to get.
On Saturday night in Pullman we saw the sizzle and the steak. We saw an angry Leach bench his entrenched starter, a long-held belief of his that the system trumps the athlete. We saw a comeback for the ages, and a defense that wouldn't go away.
We saw a crowd whipped into a frenzy, and a man who clearly knew what time it was whipping his shirt off in public. It was time to get stupid. It was time for some Washington State football after dark, where the Cougars shine and things get weird.