When a season ends with a thud, as WSU’s did with consecutive losses, it’s awfully tempting to rethink all the positive things you thought you knew about a team.
One of the things that makes sports fun is the journey on which each season takes you. There are (usually) ups and downs, and we attempt to construct narratives on the fly — which sometimes proves challenging, particularly when the week-by-week nature of football lends itself to overanalysis of results.
The 2016 season has been an unusual ride in that respect. High expectations for the season seemed to come crashing down under the weight of a pair of early season losses. Then, for a while there — in the midst of an unprecedented seven-game conference win streak — we thought WSU might actually be really good. Like, Pac-12 championship good!
Then the end of the season happened, WSU was outscored 69-24 over the final six quarters by a pair of top 10 teams ... and we’re left wondering what’s really true.
With 12 games of evidence against a range of opponents now in the books — and just a weird, one-off exhibition at a neutral site left to play — here’s what I believe to be true about the WSU Cougars, 2016 edition.
I still believe they’re pretty darned good. Maybe this seems self evident when a team wins eight games, including seven games in conference, but it’s worth repeating when it seems like there’s some doubt creeping in. We’ll talk in a moment about the Cougs’ flaws, but if we focus on their strengths, they scored 50 or more points on four different occasions — three times against Pac-12 teams — and outscored their 12 opponents by nearly 160 points. Last season, with the same number of wins, it was a mere 49 points.
WSU hadn’t had a positive point differential for a season since 2006. The last time it was 150 points or greater was 2001. That’s really good, and especially amazing when you remember the year started with a pair of negative differential games.
However, I believe they just weren’t as good as we allowed ourselves to hope. OK, this one is definitely self evident following a pair of multi-TD losses to the eventual Pac-12 division champions.
The question, though, is why? Why was Colorado able to pull away late? Why was UW able to have its way with WSU?
There’s obviously no singular answer, but one of the things that stood out to me was the superior physical nature of both of those opponents, and how they seemed to wear the Cougs down — on both sides of the ball. Whether it was getting run over repeatedly by Sefo Liufau or being unable to convert multiple short yardage opportunity against UW, there was a pretty significant difference between the Cougs and their opposition.
Now, Jimmy Lake probably would want you to believe that WSU is simply soft because the Cougs throw the ball 50 times. We all know better. Both the defense and offense have ranked among the best short yardage units in the country all season long. The Cougs didn’t suddenly get soft; they ran into a couple of really good teams with superior talent, strength and maturity up front. Sometimes that happens!
There also appeared to be a distinct lack of speed in both games, particularly on defense, something that I think goes hand-in-hand with the former. It’s no secret that WSU doesn’t recruit the same caliber of athlete as the blue bloods in the conference, but the Cougs have been able to mitigate that with aggression.
Being overmatched from a strength standpoint took some of that aggression away, leading to the Cougs being a half-step behind both the Buffs and Huskies to the point that they were often diving at legs in a futile effort to make tackles while out of position.
I believe WSU was pretty fortunate to have played the schedule it did in getting to eight wins. I’m not saying the Cougs would have lost to USC and/or Utah, but both of those teams played Colorado and UW tougher than WSU. How different does this season feel if we miss Arizona and ASU and play the Trojans and Utes instead and we’re sitting at 6-6 preparing for a trip to Vegas?
In the end, WSU played just three Pac-12 teams that will be going to bowl games and went 1-2 against them. There’s just no arguing that the schedule was fortuitous and definitely helped in rebounding from 0-2. That shouldn’t take anything away from the season — you can only play who’s on your schedule, and the Cougs did a great job on that front — but it’s a significant point of reference when reaching the “pretty darned good but not that good” conclusion with an eight-win team.
I believe the best is still possibly yet to come. Historically, WSU has tended to be at its best when it has a lot of maturity at the top of the depth chart. This team, despite accomplishing a relatively rare feat by WSU standards (winning eight regular season games), doesn’t have that — just six of 22 starters are going to graduate. Only two of those players are on defense!
They’re still pretty young in key spots, particularly the defensive secondary, which started a true freshman, a true sophomore, a junior college transfer and a junior. (And the junior wasn’t the starter to begin the season.) A pair of freshmen — Nnamdi Oguayo (redshirt) and Derek Moore (true) — saw significant time in the defensive front seven. Those were areas that both Colorado and UW exploited.
Next season, WSU is going to (most likely) be led by a senior quarterback in the most quarterback-driven offensive system in the country. All those other returning players are going to be more experienced, and we know first hand what a roster filled with older, experienced players means for this particular program. And even if we hadn’t seen it in our own program, we could just point to Colorado this year.
And if this coaching staff is as good as we think it is, that can be WSU next year, despite losing top-end guys such as Gabe Marks, River Cracraft, Shalom Luani and Robert Barber.
Pretty darned good, but maybe not as good as we hoped, but maybe even better next year? Apple Cup embarrassments be damned, this is a pretty great time to be a WSU football fan.
What We Liked
OK, enough positivity. We liked nothing about that P.O.S. game. About the best I can do is give a shout out to the students who made the trip back to Pullman a couple of days early to experience a meaningful Apple Cup. Here’s to hoping their classmates out on the field peeing down their legs didn’t ruin them forever.
Gabe Marks is a got-danged warrior. There’s only so much a wide receiver can do to take over a game, but got-dangit if Marks didn’t try. Martin Stadium got one last glimpse of one of the very best to ever wear Crimson and Gray in a vintage performance, as Marks caught 11 of his 15 targets for 112 yards and a touchdown.
“We’re soft,” he said. “We got down on the 1-yard line three times and couldn’t get a yard. If you can’t get one yard and score a touchdown three times in a row, you don’t deserve to win.”
I’ve said it 100 times, but I’m gonna miss you, Gabe.
What Needs Work
Maybe someday Mike Leach’s teams can play like the Apple Cup actually matters?
One team’s players looked as if it would be an affront to their manhood to lose to their rivals. The other team looked surprised by that fact — AGAIN — and ended up as road kill before the first quarter was even over.
I will never understand how this can possibly be. Cougs should always relish the annual opportunity to take a swing at the Huskies and their smug, arrogant asses and play as if they’ve got nothing to lose in the process.
Instead, we annually get a bed wetting of the highest order.
I know the players care. It’s stretches credulity to assert that they don’t. But after three years of Chris Petersen’s teams pistol whipping Leach’s teams by an average score of 40-13, it’s hard to not try and play pop psychologist with these Cougs.
To be sure, Washington was the superior team; however, I do not think they were 28-3-with-200-passing-yards-after-one-quarter superior, nor do I think that UW was as superior as they appeared each of the last two years, either. And that speaks to Leach’s coaching in the same manner as the season-opening flops.
Leach says the players made a bigger deal out of the game than it was, that players were trying to do too much. That couldn’t have looked farther from the truth to fans.
I don’t know what else there really is to say about Apple Cups. After growing up as a Husky and believing it was my God-given right to win most every Apple Cup, then transitioning to Coug and experiencing 1997, then later living through the four out of five between 2004 and 2008, I had at one point believed that the days of Washington totally dominating this thing were over.
I’ve now made my peace with it, I guess. It just totally sucks to enter the season chalking up the Apple Cup as a loss and knowing that if WSU somehow wins the game, it will be a fleeting aberration, nothing more.
The Holiday Bowl? Pretty please?