There was a moment on Saturday afternoon where it seemed like everything was coming apart at the seams. Washington State was up 7-0, but the offense still wasn't clicking. Luke Falk looked a bit off, despite owning Oregon State throughout his entire career — coming into Saturday, he was 3-0 against the Beavers, throwing for over 400 yards in each of those three games.
A safety on a silly pass in the end zone brought the score to 7-2, rattling everyone. Despite being better on paper, and being overwhelming favorites, were the Cougs going to cough up a chance to start the season 3-0 and lose to an Oregon State team that's clearly rebuilding? Was Luke Falk okay? Would the offense ever recover?
Just 20 minutes later, the score was 28-9, with Falk ending the half by hitting Isaiah Johnson-Mack in the end zone with four seconds left. Falk threw for four touchdowns in the first 30 minutes, two each to Tavares Martin Jr. and Johnson-Mack. The offense was moving, the defense was holding its end of the bargain, and all was well.
Slow starts are a hallmark of Mike Leach's Washington State teams, on a macro and micro level. They've stumbled out of the gates to start seasons, losing to FCS teams and non-conference opponents in years that everyone looked at the schedule and had dreams of 3-0 starts. They've done the same in games they were expected to win easily — it takes time for Leach and the offense to feel out a defense and really get moving.
So you watched the Cougs stumble around for the first 15 minutes with only a 7-2 and 14-9 lead to show for it. You worried. You thought the sky was falling.
But after 60 minutes against their first conference opponent of the 2017 season, the Cougs look just fine. A 29-point win, in which the offense put up
52 45 points, is exactly what was expected. It answered a lot of questions, and you should feel good, if not great, after three games.
Falk is now 4-0 against Oregon State, throwing for over 400 yards in three of those games (he only missed out on making it a clean sweep of 400-yard games because his Saturday ended in the middle of the Cougs' final drive, four yards short of the mark). He's thrown 22 touchdowns against the Beavers in his career. He obliterated an Oregon State secondary that he should've obliterated.
Falk spent much of the first two games dumping the ball off to running backs, taking check downs and not pressing the defense. On Saturday, Martin caught 10 passes for 194 yards and three touchdowns. Johnson-Mack added nine catches for 79 yards and two touchdowns. Oregon State couldn't stay with the Cougs' outside receivers, and they paid dearly.
There's defense, too. For the second-straight game, the Washington State defense has taken a turnover back for a touchdown — this time it was a fumbled caused by a blitzing, untouched Marcellus Pippins that Frankie Luvu scooped up and took the distance. The Coug defense gave up 21 points, but looked and felt in control the entire game — Ryan Nall rushing for over 100 yards and two touchdowns was an expected tax that comes when Washington State plays Oregon State. They played conservatively in a lot of ways — and were quiet up front — but there still wasn't much to panic about.
Through the first three games, Washington State has used all three phases to take care of opponents. The Cougs held the Beavers in check on kickoff and punt returns, and made Oregon State pay for a bad snap on a punt at the end of the first half, leading to another quick touchdown.
That all sounds like a Roy Manning video.
For the first time in 12 years, the Cougs are 3-0 to start the season. They've got a chance to be 4-0 before welcoming USC to Pullman on a Friday night in late September. Thus far, things are finally going to plan.
The Washington State offense showed signs that all of the pieces are still there, picking up chunks of yardage on the ground when they decided to run and doing the same through the air. When the offense is really moving, negative plays don't matter all that much. You start to get the feeling that they can pick up whatever down and distance whenever. You know, like this:
TOUCHDOWN WASHINGTON STATE! #GoCougs pic.twitter.com/yRZLQ35pKx— WSU Cougar Football (@wsucougfb) September 17, 2017
The not-so-secret thing about Leach teams, going back to his Texas Tech days, is they're at their best when there's a legitimate defense. Not a perfect defense, but something adequate enough to get by, get stops, force turnovers, and generally hang on while the offense does its thing. The offensive side of the ball will almost always come around, even if it struggles for games at a time. A defense that can keep it close, no matter how high- or low-scoring a game, is what really brings his teams together.
The Cougars have that. They have a legitimate defense that can pressure the quarterback, force turnovers, and come up big when they need to (including stuffing Nall on fourth down to end a drive and Oregon State's hopes). Even as the offense was figuring itself out early on Saturday, the defense kept Oregon State at bay. It wasn't prefect, but it didn't need to be.
You should feel good about the Cougars right now. They're 3-0 to start the season, and in the top-25. They didn't lose to the FCS team on the schedule. They beat Boise State by hanging around and finishing the comeback this year — after just missing out last year. And they pasted Oregon State with an offense that scored in bunches after just squeaking by last year. They have a backup quarterback who looks capable of stepping in should anything happen to Falk — an Achilles heel over the past two years. And they have a defense that looks good enough to keep them in ballgames, which is a recipe for success for Leach teams.
Washington State has all the parts to make a run in the Pac-12 North. If you felt good about the Cougs' chances coming into the year, nothing you've seen should change that. The Cougs are checking all the boxes they need to.
If you take a step back, and stress less, you'll realize they're playing fun, entertaining football. And what seems like a slow start is actually a Washington State football team that's ahead of schedule, taking care of business without the early-season hiccups that have plagued them over the last decade.