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The Monday After: The Cougars take what is rightfully theirs from Boise State

Sorry not sorry, Broncos.

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

You probably know by now that you won’t learn a whole lot about football from listening to ESPN talking head Rod Gilmore. One thing you can learn, though, from the inane babbling we were (again) subjected to on Saturday night? A lot of people really don’t understand much about the Air Raid.

Although Gilmore typically is the worst of the bunch, it’s not just him — and it helps explain why a lot of fans don’t always understand what’s going on out there, either. A major misconception that persists with the Air Raid is that it’s a “take what the defense gives you” system. I mean, to some degree that’s true; there certainly is a pragmatic element to all offenses in that they’re generally not trying to do things they know will have a very low chance of success.

But anyone who thinks football coaches are content with passively accepting what is given to them by the unit on the other side of the ball hasn’t spent a lot of time around football coaches. And if anyone thinks Mike Leach, in particular, is OK with simply conceding that his offense will submit to the scraps of space offered by the opposing defense and be happy about it ...

Well, I hate to break it to you, but you clearly don’t know our irascible coach all that well:

“Games have to be taken away from somebody,” Leach told his team after it came back from three touchdowns in the final eight minutes to defeat Boise State. “You can’t ever go out there and play not to lose. Games have to be taken away from somebody.”

You don’t have to be much of a student of history to know that this reflects a particular American ethos (for better or worse), and while I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds here regarding the cultural significance of football, I’d like to offer this: The perch upon which it sits above all other American sports has much to do with its fundamental essence, which is that the team that wins is the one that can somehow physically exert its will on an opponent. As the game has evolved, that physical exertion has taken on a lot of forms, but at its core? One team is trying to break through an imaginary wall, and the other team is trying to collide with them frequently enough and forcefully enough to prevent them from getting there. And it’s generally pretty easy for anyone with two functioning eyeballs to discern which team is succeeding in that endeavor. It’s not hard to figure out why it’s so popular.

To that end, anyone who looked at the Washington State Cougars’ first game of the year — as Luke Falk continually checked down to running backs — and thought, “Yep, that’s fine,” saw on Saturday exactly why that wasn’t fine and couldn’t continue. Nobody disagreed that it was effective against Montana State. But as Brian Anderson said in his Pre-Snap Read: “Last week looked a lot like taking a Ferrari out for a spin and never leaving second gear. Sure, you’re still driving it ... but not really.”

It’s one thing to not be able to take what you want from USC or Washington. It’s a whole ‘nother thing to not be able (or willing, as Leach intimated) to take what you want from Montana State or Boise State.

And this settling — this “taking what the defense gives you” — caused massive problems for 52 minutes against the Broncos before the Cougars finally put their foot on the gas. As painful as it was, it took removing the record-setting, fifth-year senior quarterback from the backfield for it to happen.

If Tyler Hilinski showed us anything (and he showed us a lot!), it’s that there were a number of throws available to Falk that Falk refused to make — unless, for some reason, you believe that after Hilinski entered the game the Boise State Broncos suddenly began employing a scheme that was different than the one that had limited WSU to 10 points for 52 minutes. Heck, it’s pretty obvious that Leach himself thought Falk wasn’t being aggressive enough when he said this ...

... then, after two more uninspiring drives — long before Falk (ostensibly) was injured in the fourth quarter — Leach benched Falk for a series. But it didn’t get better, and Falk found his way to the sideline for good after another one of those hits that he’s taken far too frequently.

Hilinski’s performance was imperfect and messy, but he clearly understood that he couldn’t just be content to accept the most wide open throw — especially when that’s the throw the defense actually wants you to make. Against Montana State, dumping it off two dozen times gets you nine yards a play. But against Boise State, a team that will rally to the ball with much better athletes? It’ll get you 3.4 — that’s what the running backs were averaging per reception before Jamal Morrow broke off that 22-yarder in the third overtime for the win.

Notice how, on that play, Morrow only had to beat one guy and then he was off to the races?

That’s because Hilinski was threatening the entire field with his arm, and those guys that were swarming to the ball earlier were now otherwise preoccupied. That’s the Air Raid in action. That’s physically dictating the terms of the game to the other team — you don’t have to grind them into dust with jumbo formations to do it.

In fact, Morrow was all about taking this game away from Boise State.

And so was the defense.

It’s ironic that, through two games, it’s the #SpeedD is the unit that actually has best demonstrated Leach’s “take the game” attitude. As evidenced by the preceding 900 words, I’m as guilty as anyone of focusing on the offense, something that comes naturally to most fans, but is particularly endemic to fans of a Leach-coached team.

Like Hilinski, the defense certainly wasn’t flawless, but holy crap did those guys get after it. The Cougs began the game by setting up shop in Boise State’s backfield, sacking Brett Rypien three times in the first quarter alone — one of those times with Hercules Mata’afa and Frankie Luvu combining to force a fumble that was returned for a TD, the third time with Luvu forcing Rypien out of the game with a hit so violent it’s a minor miracle he’s still walking the earth, never mind that he held onto the ball.

In particular, the linebackers had incredible games. Peyton Pelluer and Isaac Dotson combined for a whopping 24 tackles, more than a quarter of WSU’s overall total. They were flying around and tackling everything. Pelluer — with an assist from Nnamdi Oguayo, who was harassing BSU quarterback Montell Cozart — also provided the moment that shifted the game into “holy crap, we might actually have a chance here?!?” mode. This is how you take a game away from someone:

The defense allowed 24 points in regulation and took the ball away three* times in all, bookending a fumble recovery at the goal line to deny a touchdown with a pair of returns for TDs. A lot of praise has gone to Hilinski, but frankly, the defense deserves the lion’s share of the credit for this win. And while I’m still curious as to how they’ll hold up against a much more physically imposing team, I have every reason to believe this is defensive coordinator Alex Grinch’s best unit yet.

*Yes, I know there were four takeaways. The fourth takeaway came on special teams. Yay #Forces!

The future of the offense is a little less certain to me, which is something that feels absolutely bizarre to type. There’s no legitimate reason why it should have taken 52 minutes for the offense to get to the point it needed to be. I sincerely hope watching the remainder of the game was a sufficient motivator for Falk, because there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s still the best option at quarterback for WSU to achieve everything it’s capable of achieving this year.

But a lot of quarterback play is between the ears, and it’s been about half a season’s worth of games now since Falk has looked right. I know he’s a fierce competitor, I know he’s no stranger to adversity, and I know he’s not going to even entertain the possibility that he could cede this job to Hilinski.

Take that job back, Luke. Just like I expect you to take the game away from your own personal get-well team, Oregon State.

Because if we do what we do, the offense should be able to get on board with the defense and dictate the game to the next two opponents all game long. If we don’t? Well ... then it’ll officially be time to worry.

We’re not there yet. And it’s pretty great that the Cougs get to work their kinks out while 2-0 instead of 1-1 — all because they woke up in time to take what was rightfully theirs from a team that should have had no business being in that game in the first place.

What We Liked

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

It’s no secret that special teams have been pretty awful for most of Mike Leach’s tenure at WSU. And yet, here we are, two games into the season, and special teams have been a strength.

I wondered if Boise State’s prowess on special teams, which is well known, would be the sort of thing that could tip the game in the Broncos favor. Not only did the Broncos fail to make anything resembling a significant impact on returns, they actually were the ones to make a big blunder when a punt hit a guy’s back and was recovered by WSU, setting up the game-tying touchdown.

Speaking of punts, I’ll be the first to tell you that I hated the rugby punts last year. They didn’t actually seem to accomplish much of what they were supposed to accomplish; both the gross and net distance of the punts left WSU ranked near the bottom of the NCAA in those categories.

This year? The Cougs are 50th in gross punt average on 10 punts, and they have allowed just four returns for a grand total of four yards. Kyle Sweet has even put a couple of punts inside the 20. I’m still not sold on the idea that there’s much of an advantage to be gained by trying so many different things with two different punters, but the results have been excellent, and that’s all that really matters.

WSU also is 24th in kickoff return coverage, allowing less than 17 yards.

Oh, and Erik Powell is 3-for-3 on his field goal attempts, including a pressure-packed make from a less-than-ideal angle in the first overtime to continue the game.

The return game hasn’t been much to write home about yet, as there were a trio of miscues by Robert Taylor and Morrow on Saturday. However, I kinda don’t care much about that as long as we’re not giving the ball back or conceding long returns the other way.

Give special teams coach Eric Mele a ton of credit for what he’s done with these guys. They’re playing very well.

Who Impressed

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

Is there any answer here other than Hilinski? Thrown into a game with his team trailing in order to send a message to the starter, he ends his first series with a real dumb decision that gives the ball away. Later, he’s thrown back into the game with his team trailing by even more after the starter goes down for good with an (apparent) injury.

All he did was go 21-of-28 for 204 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions in that second stint, leading WSU to an overtime victory. Not bad, young man. You deserved every bit of that ride pictured above.

I hope we don’t need Hilinski again this season. But if we do, I feel darn good about what he’s bringing to the table.

What Needs To Improve

The run game was absolutely dreadful, making it three out of four halves that it’s been subpar against defensive fronts that WSU’s Exceptionally Large Men should have been able to push around.

I didn’t think losing Riley Sorenson and Eduardo Middleton would be a game-changer for a unit that brought back three NFL prospects. And the easy conclusion is that it looks an awful lot like those guys were a key part of the run game.

But my untrained eye tells me that Andre Dillard and Cody O’Connell haven’t exactly been lights out yet, and the left side is supposed to be the strength of the line. For example, let’s revisit that spectacular run by Morrow — and keep an eye on The Continent:

Whoops. These guys have to do better, because 2.8 yards per carry against Boise State is inexcusable. And it appears Mike Leach agrees.

“OK, so like if you were ever in a fight … so pick whoever you think our best offensive lineman is,” Leach said. “OK, if there was a fight to the death and you were to clean out this room and there were no rules whatsoever to be applied. So you pick out whoever happens to be your favorite of our offensive lineman. Whoever you think is the toughest. Now whoever’s the softest of that Boise State D-line, you bring him in here. And all that’s going to be left of our offensive lineman is a grease spot at the end. Because that Boise State defensive lineman would smoke our offensive lineman so bad, it’ll be embarrassing.”

He didn’t stop there!

“They just don’t mind getting their ass kicked,” Leach said. “And it appears to kind of appeal to them. Hopefully they’re only doing it on an experimental basis and it’s a stage or a phase they’ll come out of.”

Well then. We’re in agreement, coach. This needs to get better.

Up Next

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Oregon State
Beavers tight end Noah Togiai (81) fumbles the ball as he is tackled by Minnesota Golden Gophers defensive back Duke McGhee (8) at Reser Stadium.
Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The Oregon State Beavers come to town. The Beavs gave the Cougs one heck of a fight in Corvallis last year, but this edition appears to have taken a step back in Gary Andersen’s third season. (You’ll recall that Leach’s third year was his toughest.)

The only thing standing between the Beavers and an 0-3 start is a come-from-behind victory over Portland State, in which Jake Luton found former WSU commit Isaiah Hodgins for a 17-yard TD with just over a minute to go in the game to eke out a 35-32 victory. In the other two games, against Colorado State and Minnesota, OSU has been outscored 106-41.

Like I said, if the offense can’t get right in this one ... it’s probably time to get worried. Kickoff on Saturday is set for 2:30 p.m. (early!!) and it will be broadcast on Pac-12 Networks.