I’m not sure if I expected the Washington State Cougars to do something different in the Cheez-It Bowl than they’ve done all year, or be something different than what they’ve been all year, but I can’t help but be impressed by their commitment to their particular identity, even in the postseason.
Say this for the 2019 Cougs: For better or worse, they were on brand all the way until the bitter end.
Friday night had it all. There were flashes of brilliance. There were moments of ineptitude. And, of course, there also was breathtakingly ineffective defense. And, like so many of their losses this season, the Cougars were really close to winning the game.
As usual, the offense was actually very good — WSU rolled up 366 yards on just 50 plays spanning eight drives; the 7.3 yards per play put it in the top half of games this season. It’s easy to look at just 21 points and conclude the offense was below its usual standards, but eight drives is at least three or four fewer opportunities to score than the Cougs usually get. They moved into the red zone on five of those eight drives. Anthony Gordon threw TD passes on three of those opportunities; a 60% conversion rate isn’t good, but it’s actually pretty average.
But, as was often the case, they either sabotaged themselves with errors or just couldn’t make the big play in a critical moment.
If Max Borghi* scores on a pair of 4th down runs inside the Air Force Falcons’ 5-yard line instead of getting stuffed, the Cougs probably win the game, despite the defense’s impotence. Heck, if the team doesn’t blow a blocking assignment that leads to a Gordon fumble — the only drive in the first half that didn’t cover 70 or more yards — there’s a decent chance they put up TDs on all three of their final first half drives and take a lead into the locker room. Who knows what happens from there?
*Interesting note: Borghi actually touched the ball inside the 10 five different times. One of those was a catch in the back of the end zone; the other four times — one swing pass, three rushes — he didn’t get across the goal line.
And for as poorly as the defense played overall ... they were in position to get the ball back to the offense with four minutes to tie or win the game. All they needed was a 4th down stop from the 3-yard line. And, for once, they even played the triple option perfectly! They completely mucked up the middle, causing the QB to pull the dive. Jahad Woods has the QB, George Hicks III has the pitch man, and as you’ll see in a second, Tyrese Ross does a masterful job shedding the block. Now it’s just a matter of making a tackle:
But then Hicks hesitates ever so slightly on his assignment and takes an angle that’s just a smidge too aggressive. And Ross is just a 10th of a second late in the race to the pylon. And — somehow — a service academy running back is able to turn this into a TD:
Alas, all of those critical failures did happen. And they did lose, again, just as they had six other times this season.
The game was an amazingly perfect microcosm of how you have a team that’s ranked 25th by SP+, 30th by ESPN’s FPI and 38th by FEI while finishing with a losing record. Each of those systems look at the underlying performances to try and judge the true strength of a team; they pay no mind to the sequencing of ill-timed turnovers or penalties. As the 30ish best team, you’d probably expect at least a couple of more wins, maybe even a few — most everyone around them in these rankings finished the regular season with a winning record.
But these guys had an incredible knack for killing their chances to win. Maybe it was just the randomness of luck; that’s certainly what the objective ranking systems would say. Maybe they just lacked a little something psychologically that you can’t measure, but is actually there.
Whatever it was, it shouldn’t have been any kind of surprise that the Cheez-It Bowl played out as it did. Which is why I finished the game torn on just how bummed out to be by the loss. On the one hand, losing sucks, especially for the players. That wasn’t a team that was sleepwalking, or approaching the game with the arrogance that sometimes dooms Power 5 teams against the G5 opponents. As in 2013, it stinks that there’s going to be a losing record here every time I navigate to the page.
On the other hand ... bowl game. I get as worked up as anyone while it’s going on, but in the end, the result is meaningless. It’s a weird one-off exhibition in which nothing is normal. There’s no such thing as bowl momentum, no predictive power in a bowl loss going forward, so there’s no point at all in dwelling on large-scale implications.
Still, it’s worth peeking ahead to 2020.
I’m legitimately concerned that next season is when the bowl streak finally ends. The offense is likely to be breaking in an inexperienced quarterback in one way or another (either Cammon Cooper or Gunner Cruz or a grad transfer with no Air Raid experience) while trying to replace a pair of linemen (Robert Valencia and stalwart center Fred Mauigoa) and three receivers, including the team’s two best (Brandon Arconado and Easop Winston Jr.).
On the whole, the offense probably will be fine, because it always is under Mike Leach. But it’s also entirely reasonable to expect at least a modest step back. And a modest step back there will likely need to be combined with a modest step forward by the defense if we’re going to reach six wins again — something I figure will be a harder task next season than it was this one.
WSU isn’t getting three freebies in the non-conference next fall: Traveling to Utah State to open the season is no gimme, particularly with an inexperienced QB, and the Houston team that comes to Pullman is going to be improved after Dana Holgorsen adds reinforcements to redshirting seniors such as D’Eriq King. Maybe we get some help in conference games — perhaps the Pac-12 isn’t any better on the whole than it was this season, and maybe the sequencing of games will be less brutal; at the very least, we know the Cougs will get five conference home games. But even so, any slip up in the non-conference will mean needing to go 4-5 in the league to qualify for the postseason again.
Can the defense step up? I suppose it depends on the new defensive coordinator, but seeing “Power 5” defenders get beaten to the corner and also trucked and dragged on dives by service academy running backs didn’t exactly inspire a ton of confidence that the young players simply need a little more seasoning and better game plans. And I don’t hold out hope for immediate contributions from a meaningful infusion of talent with the handful of scholarships that remain in the 2020 class — that’s not the kind of recruit WSU can typically attract, especially this late in the game.
Hopefully the new defensive coordinator is able to exceed my expectations and somehow achieve marginal improvement. The 2020 postseason probably rides on it.
What We Liked: One last ride with Gordo and Arco
I’m well aware that the offense only scored 21 points, and that we never really got the fireworks we were promised. But that was largely a function of a defense that gave up an astounding 43 minutes of possession to the Falcons, limiting the offense to just eight drives.
I also know there are some fans who always will expect more from the quarterback, but Gordon did just about everything he could on those eight drives: 351 yards on just 42 attempts for 8.4 yards per pass (above his season average) with three touchdowns (all in the red zone, I might add) and zero interceptions. Fumble notwithstanding, his performance was everything I’ve come to love about him, and I’m glad I got to see him sling it around one more time, because he was so special this year.
It also was awesome to see Arconado finish like that. Outside of Gordon, there was nobody more important to this offense than him, and it’s an absolute joke that he didn’t even make all-Pac-12 honorable mention. He was WSU’s best receiver, full stop, and him going off for 167 yards on 11 catches was exactly what he deserved.
Much like Gordon will probably never get the respect he deserves for this season, I feel like Arconado’s year will suffer the same fate. He finished the year with 1,109 yards — 8th all time in a single season at WSU. And it wasn’t just a function of volume: He didn’t lead the team in catches (that was Winston) and he had the highest per-catch average of anyone on the team — from the inside receiver position. AND HE MISSED TWO FULL GAMES AND MOST OF ANOTHER ONE.
The only Air Raid receivers at WSU to put up more yards in a single season were Vince Mayle and Gabe Marks — both outside receivers. River Cracraft, the gold standard for the Y position, never had more than 771 yards.
Maybe with time, people will properly appreciate how awesome this duo was.
Who Impressed: Lamonte McDougle
I just got done saying there’s little predictive value in a bowl game, so let me go right ahead and contradict myself immediately by getting excited about Lamonte McDougle’s junior season after watching him wreck Air Force.
We’ve been waiting for this kind of performance out of McDougle all season, and for whatever reason, it didn’t show up until the final game. I don’t know why that is. Perhaps it was a function of opportunity (he played more snaps in this game than any other); perhaps it was a function of assignment (maybe for this game against this offense they just wanted him to be as disruptive as possible); perhaps it was a function of competition (he was definitely the biggest dude on the field against AFA’s diminutive line).
Whatever it was, it sure was encouraging to see, particularly in a game where there wasn’t a lot to be encouraged by on that side of the ball. Here’s to hoping the next defensive coordinator figures out how to use him effectively, because the talent is undeniable.
What Needs Work: Defensive game planning
When it comes to football analysis, I make no secret of the fact that Xs and Os are not my strength. I’ve learned a few things over the years from Jesse Cassino and Brian Anderson, but it’ll never be my strength — particularly in real time as a game is unfolding. So it was that, as I was lamenting the seeming physical deficiencies of the defense in the Cheez-It Bowl, this was happening:
Going to be a long LONG night for Wazzu if they keep lining up to tackle over unbalanced like this on defense.— Drew Piscopo (@DrewCPiscopo) December 28, 2019
they’ve got to be misaligned on D, they’re already outnumbered.
We play enough triple option teams to know this is a nightmare, you’ve got to bump it pic.twitter.com/z2Lax1dNdw
If you’ve coached the wing t you’ve seen some funky defenses. However, this might take the cake. Power or Buck Sweep all day!!!! pic.twitter.com/HHO6o2NofO— Denny Molzen (@coachmolzen) December 28, 2019
Really... are they worried about the all verticals? pic.twitter.com/1HZ8vd9HPB— Coach Kenny Simpson (@fbcoachsimpson) December 28, 2019
Nasty splits in the flex. WSU not ready for the subtle adjustments. pic.twitter.com/rLksVF8ztx— Coach Kenny Simpson (@fbcoachsimpson) December 28, 2019
As Brian Floyd said, if you want to know how to defend an option attack, talk to high school coaches. They were clearly unimpressed with Roc Bellantoni’s game plan for this one for actual reasons that went beyond my analysis of “man we can’t stop them at all.”
Which seems like as good a reason as any to say that while I appreciate Bellantoni’s contribution this season after Claeys quit on the program, under no circumstances should he be a candidate for the permanent gig. In fact, I’d go so far as to say the season was such a mess, the new defensive coordinator should be given the autonomy to turn over as much of the defensive staff as he wants. Really, the only person who sticks out to me as an exceptionally strong candidate for holdover is Darcel McBath; outside of that, I think a fresh start with fresh voices is absolutely warranted.
Up Next: Spring Game!
See y’all in Pullman in April.