Some of our fans are fond of saying that the Washington State Cougars do their best work when very little is expected of them. I always laugh when that pops up, because, well, very little is expected of the Cougs by the public at large in the vast majority of years, which means that WSU has a lot more chances to exceed expectations than most teams, and when they do succeed, of course they usually do it as underdogs.
However, I’ll give those fans this: I do think it says something about a program when it can outperform expectations often enough that it becomes sort of a thing — as opposed to, say, Indiana or something. And while it’s obviously early in the 2018 season and this narrative could change pretty quickly with a stinker in Los Angeles on Friday, I think it’s fair to say the Cougs are on a trajectory to outperform expectations once again.
If someone really wanted to try and take a negative view of this 3-0 start, they could point out that WSU beat up on what looks like a pair of Mountain West also-rans before dominating an FCS team — as an FBS program should. (The guess here is that’s why WSU has gone from receiving six votes in the AP poll after beating the Wyoming Cowboys to four after shutting out the San Jose State Spartans and finally to just two this week after blasting Eastern Washington.)
But to those of us who have intently watched all three games, I think it’s really difficult to walk away from them thinking doom is just around the corner, even if we, as fans, are prone to overvalue our own team’s performances. Outscoring your opponents 131-43 is pretty danged good by WSU standards, no matter the competition. But what’s really got me excited, beyond the decisive margins, is the manner in which they’ve gotten to those margins.
Only one of these first three games was completely uncompetitive, which means that in each of the other two, WSU had to fight back against a little bit of adversity. Against Wyoming, the Cougs actually trailed in the third quarter; against Eastern, the Eagles rallied back to close what had been a 25-point margin to just 11 early in the third quarter. For another team with another quarterback, maybe those are occasions for a little bit of pants wetting.
With this team with this quarterback, it’s an occasion to stiffen up and put the gas to the floor: The Cougs have scored an average of 17 points in the fourth quarter while allowing zero, closing out games with a gusto not seen these parts for quite some time. Since we’re comparing teams, they remind me a little bit of the 2015 squad, which flirted with the fine line between success and failure all season long. Whenever the odds seemed stacked against them, then-sophomore Luke Falk would just let it rip and lead his team storming back.
These Cougs, with Gardner Minshew II at the helm, seem to have that same kind of vibe. It’s impossible to know how it actually will translate to Pac-12 play, but I sure feel better knowing that they’ve hit some bumpy spots and been able to work it out — impressively. The odds of a total pants crapping seem very low with these guys, which is an awfully nice thing to believe heading into a Friday night grudge match with the USC Trojans.
It’s also hard to know how good WSU actually is. However we feel about the process of arriving at these three wins, the reality is that WSU has beaten FBS teams ranked 84th and 124th by Bill Connelly’s S&P+, and FCS will always be FCS, 2016 be damned.
But it sure feels like there’s something there. I remember the way Eastern ran all over the Cougs two years ago, looking like peers. Some of that was Cooper Kupp — did you know he’s now in the NFL? No, really! — but Gage Gubrud ran all over the place and completed about a million passes as WSU looked clueless. On Saturday, WSU had the far superior athletes, outgunning the Eagles with their wide receivers and shutting down their prolific offense with speedy linebackers and defensive backs.
That 2016 team went on to win its first seven Pac-12 games. I’m cautiously optimistic that these guys are getting ready to head down a similar path. And even if they’re not getting ready to go on another run to Pac-12 North contention, they’re already halfway home to six wins. Given the current state of the Pac-12, the path to six wins hardly seems impossible.
What We Liked
One element of the Air Raid that was conspicuously missing last season was the screen game. It serves an essential function in the offense, stretching defenses horizontally and expanding the real estate they have to cover.
It appears to be back this season. Unless my memory is failing, I don’t recall that they’ve broken a long one yet, but they’ve used a handful of screens to pick up the standard 5 to 10 yards that keep corners honest. It’s a refreshing change from last season, when it appeared the young inside receivers just couldn’t really sustain a block, resulting in a number of very short gains or even losses in the wide screen game.
It’s an exciting development because I feel like with guys such as Tay Martin, Travell Harris and Jamire Calvin, it’s only a matter of time before one of them busts a long one.
We also liked this:
Unfortunately, it’s going to be a while before WSU can win any more land — the USC Trojans don’t possess any after losing to Texas, and the Utah Utes also don’t possess any after losing to Washington and are on bye this week. It’s possible that Oregon State, the following week’s opponent, could pick up some land ... but unlikely.
I see that Jahad Woods had just five tackles in the game. That can’t possibly be correct, because I’d have sworn he was all over the field.
Woods is one of those guys I was referring to with my comment on speed up above; his interception is one of the more athletic plays you’re going to see all season from anyone on any team:
Gubrud couldn’t believe that ball didn’t get over him and into the arms of the waiting receiver. This just isn’t same team it was, athletically, as two years ago.
I’d be remiss not to mention Minshew’s massive game, but I think I’m going to do something separate on him this week, so I’ll just leave it at this: He was awesome. Haven’t seen one of those from an Air Raid QB at WSU in some time.
Honorable Mention: Minshew, Travell Harris, Tay Martin, Peyton Pelluer, Hunter Dale, Jalen Thompson, the offensive line.
What Needs Work
Special forces giveth, special forces taketh away.
Fortunately this season, WSU’s special teams have been a net positive: Blake Mazza has been solid with the place kicking, Oscar Draguicevich has proven to be a weapon as a punter (R.I.P. Kyle Sweet’s rugby punt), and Harris’ kickoff return TD was special.
But it hasn’t been perfect. Kick coverage has been a particular concern; WSU ranks 105th in average kickoff return yards allowed. It sure would be nice to get that cleaned up before playing a team that could really make the Cougs pay.
Additionally, I’m concerned about the defensive line. The pass rush was fairly nonexistent unless bolstered by a blitz, and the run defense has been spotty at times. I’m encouraged by the play of the linebackers and defensive backs, but asking this much out of them every week seems like a recipe for problems.
The Cougs travel to Southern California, where they’ll take on a reeling USC team. The Trojans have gotten their butts handed to them twice in a row, which should make for an interesting quandary — will they be more discombobulated from their recent form, or will they come out ready to smack the Cougs in an attempt to exact revenge?
I’m betting on the former. USC looks like a mess, and Clay Helton still looks like he’s not that great of a coach.