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The Monday After: WSU survived Cal week, and that’s all that really matters

And upon closer inspection, it probably was a better performance than it seemed.

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

Sometimes it just doesn’t matter how you win. Sometimes, all that matters is that you win. Period. And after watching the Washington State Cougars kick away games — both figuratively and literally — to the California Golden Bears over the years, I’m not going to spend one danged minute apologizing for that ugly slog of a win on Saturday.

Cal is presumably our football peer; we’ve got roughly the same kind of history (both in terms of accomplishments and of our acute sense of impending doom) and we generally compete for the same class of recruits. Yet, somehow, Cal had won 11 of the past 13 against us. Some of that was the tail end of Cal being good under Jeff Tedford; some of that was WSU being historically bad under Paul Wulff.

But a lot of it was just plain weirdness, of which you all are aware enough — I don’t need to rehash it here. And a good amount of that weirdness reared its head again on Saturday, to the point where I was thinking, “I swear, we really are cursed against Cal.”

I mean ...

  • Intercepting a ball for what looked like a sure pick 6, only to fumble the ball short of the goal line, only to watch what should have been an easy recovery go right through another player’s hands and out of the back of the end zone for a touchback?
  • Missing a short field goal and then botching a PAT ... at the same end of the field as this?
  • SIX first downs via penalty for Cal — nearly 13 of the Golden Bears’ total — vs. zero for WSU? (Not only that, but one of the two penalties called on Cal was somehow the only kind of defensive holding that doesn’t result in an automatic first down. To be honest, I didn’t even know those existed.)
  • This ridiculous ejection?

WSU outgained Cal by 2.1 yards per play, which is the kind of margin that suggests a multiple touchdown victory. Instead, the Cougs needed another clutch fourth quarter drive from Gardner Minshew II and his friends in order to finally seal the victory. In fact, when all the game’s plays are taken into account, S&P+ calculates that if this game was played 1,000 times, WSU wins this game by an average of 24 points.

But, this game was not played 1,000 times. It was played once. And Cal coach Justin Wilcox deserves a lot of credit for putting together a game plan that somehow gave his team a chance to take the lead with just minutes left in the game.

You might not have realized this, but WSU had just four offensive possessions in the second half. They’d typically have six or seven, but Cal possessed the ball for nearly five minutes more than the Cougs did after the break. Before WSU took over with less than three minutes to go, Cal had run 35 plays to WSU’s 23.

It reminded me a lot of when the Dick Bennett was the basketball coach at WSU and the Cougars were pretty severely outmanned by their opponents. Knowing they couldn’t hope to match the other team basket for basket, they’d play sound, disciplined team defense and possess the ball for as long as possible in order to artificially deflate the possessions and keep the game close. At that point ... maybe you hit a few threes down the stretch and somehow pull out a win?

But you still have to score, and Cal simply could not make enough plays to do that on a level needed to beat the Cougs, who weren’t going to be held down forever. For as much as people want to credit Wilcox for coming up with some sort of special sauce that neuters the Air Raid, WSU gained 6.3 yards per play — more than they gained in scoring 34 points against the Oregon Ducks, and about on par with what they gained against the USC Trojans (36 points), Utah Utes (28 points) and San Jose State Spartans (31 points).

WSU was always going to get in the end zone again, given enough chances, as it had really only been held back by uncharacteristically terrible performances on third/fourth down (4-of-13) and in the red zone (touchdowns on just one of its first four chances). Maybe that’s Wilcox being a defensive mastermind in those situations, but given WSU’s season-long performances in those categories and the way the Cougars moved the ball otherwise, I tend to think it was probably more about WSU failing to execute at inopportune times more than anything else, and I think the final drive bore that out.

Which is why the final margin of the game doesn’t concern me at all going forward; it’s pretty clear WSU played better on the whole than what the final score would suggest, there was a crap ton of Cal baloney going on, and if we’re being completely honest, this also was a prime spot for a letdown anyway. I know people were worried about the Stanford Cardinal in that regard, but I always thought this game — against an opponent of questionable quality, at home, in what would probably be some icky November weather — was the more likely spot for a loss of focus if we got past the Cardinal.

I don’t know if it was a full “letdown,” but I know the Cougars weren’t quite as sharp as they have been. And when we combine that with the football gods frowning on us for a few hours, that usually results in a loss for a program of WSU’s stature.

That the Cougs pulled out a win in less-than-ideal conditions is yet another testament to the quality of this squad. That’s what Big Boy teams do, and it continues to affirm their ranking and record as anything but a fluke.

What We Liked

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

A little bit lost in the (rightful) fawning over Minshew and Easop Winston Jr. and that final drive (more on that in a second) is the fact that the defense held it down until the offense could do its thing.

Tracy Claeys endeavored to take away the run game — the one thing on offense Cal is pretty good at — and dare whoever was playing quarterback to make enough throws to make WSU pay. The Cougars succeeded by holding the Golden Bears to their second-worst rushing output of the season.

It also resulted in Cal methodically moving the ball down the field and controlling the clock with small-to-medium gains, but it also gave them opportunities to eventually make errors, which each of Cal’s quarterbacks did. In college football, there’s something to be said for just waiting for the other team to screw up and hand you the game. Heck, David Shaw has built his Stanford program on that principle. And it worked out great for WSU on Saturday.

Don’t look now, but WSU continues to have a perfectly respectable defense. And as we’ve said before the defensive coaching staff deserves a ton of credit for that.

Who Impressed?

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

Welcome back, Easop Winston Jr.! After dominating against USC, Utah and Oregon State, Winston made room for Dezmon Patmon to shine against Oregon and Stanford. Winston was back against Cal, making the two of the biggest offensive plays of the game — consecutively! — to provide the final margin.

Play 1:

Play 2:

That poor, poor corner. First time, he gets torched on an inside release. Second time, he gets beaten with an outside just enough that Winston is able to engage that subtle push off that Gabe Marks used to such great effect to get just enough separation.

It’s really incredible how much production WSU is getting from the Z position. Of the 50 available targets on Saturday, Winston and Patmon combined for roughly one third of them (16) while accounting for more than 40 percent of the yards. And I think at least some of that has to do with the diverse skill sets of Winston and Patmon that are inherent in their statures (5-foot-11/190 vs. 6-4/220).

We certainly haven’t seen this kind of a duo at one receiver spot where there’s really no drop off from one guy to the other. It puts tremendous pressure on the defense, and Minshew is making the most of it.

What Needs Work

NCAA Football: California at Washington State
lol targeting
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve already said that I’m not trying to read too much into this game, so let’s talk about everyone’s favorite subject for complaining: Officiating! Specifically, the officiating of targeting. You’ll be shocked to find out that I have thoughts. You’ll also be shocked to find out that my thoughts aren’t all that short.

I tend not to be as hard on officials as many people are, partly because I favor simple explanations for things, and I think the simplest explanation for most officiating problems in football is that officiating football is really, really hard. I came to that conclusion while considering the issues with officiating in the NFL, which presumably employs the very best officials the world has to offer.

I’ve learned that I can enjoy football just a little bit more if I accept that random stuff that doesn’t make any sense is just going to happen. Why? Because football’s relentless pursuit of legislating ambiguous things with language that is both confusing and imprecise is an act of compete futility. It’s completely absurd on its face, and, because of that, stupid things that doesn’t make any sense are going to happen because these things are undefinable.

Take, for example, targeting.

Think about that word. What does it mean to “target” something? Here’s what Google says: “To select as an object of attention or attack.” By calling the penalty by that word, the football rules makers are essentially saying that the penalty and ejection for targeting is for “selecting [the head or neck area of an opponent] for attention or attack.”

We all know that’s not how the rule is enforced. Such as ...

Dominick Silvels certainly didn’t target the receivers head or neck area. Yes, there was contact with the head or neck. Some might even say “forcible” contact. But ... isn’t literally every tackle forcible?

To that end, I would argue the weakness of the targeting rule is its effort to be strong through definitions such as “forcible contact.” It’s a made up term designed to define another made-up term (targeting), and because it’s made up, it requires further defining.

So, what’s “forcible contact?” Oh, it’s when there’s launching. Wait, it’s other stuff now, too.

It’s really just like the NFL’s catch rule, which endured so many years of obvious stupidity born out of made-up terms like “football move,” which they then had to define after the fact using a bunch of example videos. In fact, that’s how these things always get done: They send referees a bunch of videos where they say “this is a catch/a hold/pass interference/targeting” and “this is not a catch/a hold/pass interference/targeting.”

The problem here is that the very word “targeting” implies intent. Their own “indicators of targeting” in Note 1 above imply intent. And yet, as we see, intent isn’t taken into account at all. For example, we now know that the officials were in agreement that this was targeting:

The announcers were even all-in on the idea that it was targeting. Why? Because there was “forcible contact.” Which ... again, what does it even mean?

You can never convince me that either one of these players was guilty of “targeting,” because you can never convince me that either one had singled out the head or neck area for attack. Silvels was guilty of nothing more than violently colliding with a receiver with his head accidentally in the wrong place. You can even see him trying to figure out in a split second where to put his head. Tago actually tries to pull up!

I think there’s two directions this rule can go. One way — the way we seem to be heading — is that any contact at all with your helmet to another player’s helmet is targeting. While I’m all for player safety, when the penalty is ejection, that seems like a very stupid way to try and legislate a game that is built on violence.

The other way: Make the rule less specific and leave the official with more latitude to determine intent.

I know what a lot of you are thinking — the last thing officials (especially PAC-12 OFFICIALS) need is gray area. But I’d submit this to you: It’s not like the rule, as written, has created some sort of iron-clad agreement as to what targeting actually is. And I’d argue that creates as much gray area as anything because of the inconsistent application of supposedly specific language. THIS WAS TARGETING ON THE CLEMSON PLAYER:

It’s absolute madness. And it’s really gone far enough. Why not simplify the rule to something like this: “Did the player clearly try to weaponize his helmet/shoulder/forearm when he made contact with the head or neck area?” Yanno, how the word “targeting” is actually defined in a dictionary.

Like the legal definition of obscenity, you’ll know it when you see it, and I dare say even Pac-12 refs will know it when they see it.

As long as it stays the way it is, I’ll just try and accept the randomness that will be an inevitable outcome of terrible (and futile) legislation. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Up Next!

NCAA Football: Colorado at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

It’s off to Boulder for the Colorado Buffaloes. I went to the game at Folsom Field two years ago, and I can honestly say it was one of my favorite road trips. Boulder is a cool town, the setting of the stadium is gorgeous, and it doesn’t hurt that Avery Brewing is there. (Just be careful with the Uncle Jacob’s Stout. There’s a reason it only comes 5 oz. at a time.)

The Buffs have gone into a tailspin since starting 5-0; they’ve now lost four straight after giving up 42 points to the Arizona Wildcats last weekend. They’ve had to deal with some injuries, most notably to Laviska Shenault, arguably the most explosive player in the entire conference. He could be back for the game, which would be bad news for the Cougs.

Still, this is another game where it’s pretty easy to convince yourself that WSU is the better team, particularly since Shenault doesn’t play defense: Colorado has given up an average of 35 points in losses to USC, Washington, Oregon State and Arizona.

WSU should have little trouble scoring points. Whether Mike McIntyre has something sneaky rolled up his sleeve on offense remains to be seen.

Kickoff is slated for 12:30 p.m. PT from Folsom Field, and the game will be broadcast on ESPN.