It was a little over a year ago that the Washington State Cougars trailed a Group of 5 opponent on the road at halftime as a first-year starting quarterback struggled a little to find his footing. In that way, the first half of Friday’s game against the Houston Cougars was not all that dissimilar from last season’s opener against the Wyoming Cowboys. The details are a little different, but the broad strokes are pretty close.
I’m not sure how much you remember about that 2018 game, but you might not recall that Gardner Minshew — at that point a virtual unknown to us — had completed fewer than 60% of his passes, throwing one of them to the other team, while only producing a single TD. You also might not recall that WSU was behind at the break, 16-13 — a margin that included a botched punt snap that led to a safety for the Cowboys. The offense had produced just 3.7(!) yards per play.
Of course, you do recall that WSU went on to win that game going away, and the Cougars did much the same with Houston on Friday. Only time will tell if this season is headed down a similar path as 2018.
One big difference between these two games, though, was the expectations heading into them. And I suppose that accounts for much of the interpretation of the performances. If you quickly browse the comments in the immediate aftermath of the Wyoming game, you’ll see things like “awesome, awesome win” and “great opener” and “as good as I could have hoped.” On Friday night? The vibe of the comments was decidedly more “meh” with references to the need to clean things up before facing better competition.
The comments also included some (mostly light) criticism of Anthony Gordon. Given the pretext of his first two games and the narrative surrounding the badness of Houston’s defense, another tidal wave of points was thought to be in the offing. But the fact remained that Gordon was a guy making just his third career start and his first start away from home — never mind whatever influence the short week might have. And it showed, early. Without the benefit of multiple open receivers to choose from moments after the snap, Gordon was just a little slow scanning the field on the first couple of drives, failing to see whatever it is that he thought he should have been seeing. And although the offense turned it around, the interception he threw in the end zone was a killer.
The defense hadn’t fared much better. Despite making Houston really work for their yards in the first two drives, the third and final drive was stunningly easy for the second touchdown — each of Houston’s first four plays produced a first down. The resistance bowed up a little at the goal line, but on third down, the middle of WSU’s defense got shoved back decisively and the QB sneak was easily successful.
At that point, the narratives get set; with half the game gone, and WSU trailing 14-7, it had become literally impossible — no matter what the Cougs did in the second half — for them to meet the expectations of many of our fans. One quarter of ineffective offense, plus one terrible turnover, plus two quarters of poor tackling ... well, they’ve already blown their shot at the completely dominant performance that would be the ultimate signal of where this team might be headed, and thus they will be judged on their failure to meet that standard.
(Never mind the fact that the offense was still only a shade behind Houston on a yards per play basis — 6.4 to 6.8 — and that neither side of the ball was a train wreck, anyway.)
But I think there was more in there to like than fans were realizing. Unlike Minshew — who, by the way, had a fair number of FBS starts under his belt before last year’s season opener — it only took two drives for Gordon to figure it out. Sure, the interception on the last drive before half was bad (I’d bet my house that he’ll never make that particular throw into that particular coverage again), but it was clear the offense was now rolling.
In fact, I suspect that the only only reason we didn’t feel better about the offense at the break — beyond the deflating turnover — was that we only got the ball in our hands four times, thanks to Houston’s ability to control the clock with the running game. The Coogs themselves only had three(!!) non-kneel down drives in the first two quarters. Had WSU gotten its usual six-ish drives and scored even one more TD, I bet things feel very different heading to the locker room.
And no, the defense wasn’t great early, but it wasn’t exactly terrible, either — other than that third drive, of course. There was a feeling that if some of the mistakes could be cleaned up, or if a timely play could be made, Houston could be stopped.
All that turned around in the second half. But it didn’t seem to do that much to move the needle very far from the halftime narrative, even though the second half looked like this prior to each team’s final drive:
WSU/Houston 2nd Half (minus final drives)
|Yards Per Play||9.3||3.9|
That second half was really, really dominant. I don’t think focusing so much on what went wrong early blocks you from seeing the improvement; it’s just that I think it causes you to discount just how vital that improvement is to the larger arc of the development of the team. There’s an incremental improvement that not only took place over this game, but has taken place over the first three games. This team isn’t now what it’s going to be, just like last year’s team wasn’t what it was going to be when it played Wyoming or San Jose State.
Teams need adversity to grow, and they passed that test with flying colors — I’m absolutely thrilled by what I saw in the second half as it pertains to how the team will play going forward. Led by a new starting QB who had never faced a deficit, the WSU Cougars flew past the Houston Cougars, who were led by a guy making his 19th start. It was made possible by a defense that figured out how to get back to playing fast and loose while never losing control of the contest.
We take this quality for granted — this ability to just stiffen up and refuse to fold — because we’ve seen it so much, but what I said last week bears repeating: This is not normal. Teams don’t just repeatedly look adversity in the face and then punch it in the nose. You can make a pretty decent list of Pac-12 teams during Mike Leach’s tenure that have folded when things got tough and the coach lost his job. (You might even see one of those in Pullman on Saturday night.)
This program is special.
When the obituary of this era of WSU football is written, long after Leach has moved on to wherever it is that he goes after his time in Pullman is up — the SEC? Key West? Egypt? — the influence of the Air Raid will take center stage in the narrative.
But I’ll go to my grave arguing that the Air Raid was only a little more than incidental to what the Cougs are accomplishing — that the real catalyst for this golden age is the toughness and resiliency that is either (a) inherent in the players Mike Leach recruits, or (b) instilled by him and his staff after players get to campus.
(It’s probably both.)
What We Liked: The Non-conference Schedule
I don’t know who’s ultimately in charge of scheduling for WSU, but this year’s non-conference slate could hardly have been more perfect for this particular group of players, giving an offense led by a new QB and a green group on defense the chance to build confidence and work out a bunch of kinks while still winning games.
Last week, I compared the first two games to preseason. Well, this game certainly was a step up in challenge, but not too big of a step up. Big enough to give the team some adversity to play through, but not so big that they end up stubbing their toe.
I know not all of our fans are thrilled with playing three winnable games each year; this became a particular point of discussion last season, when it was thought that a win over a tougher non-conference opponent might have propelled us into the NY6, or maybe even the CFP, if we’d been able to ... well, you know.
Anyway, I get that to some degree, but I’m a firm believer that programs need to know who they are. And as a program that is unlikely in any given year to compete for a CFP berth, things like “we should schedule tough just in case we’re good enough to be in that conversation” just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Year in and year out, wins are likely to matter much more to the program than the opportunity to make a statement for whatever outside shot there might be at the CFP.
And besides: Last year’s NY6 snub had everything to do with the perception of the Pac-12 and nothing to do with the non-conference schedule. We’re already playing nine Power 5 teams; there’s no reason to add another one years in advance just because the conference might be bad and we might be good.
If that extra win is the difference between the Cheez-It Bowl and the Alamo Bowl, I’ll take the extra win every time.
Who Impressed: Bryce Beekman
As we talk about the team improving, it’s good to note the players who are improving. Beekman, a junior college transfer, was thrust immediately into the starting role at free safety. He led the team with 10 tackles, including six solo, and had a huge forced fumble in the second half.
Safety is a position with a lot of responsibility, and I imagine it’s not super easy to learn on the fly. It appears Beekman is coming along nicely.
Honorable Mention 1: Jahad Woods also had himself a nice game, particularly in the second half. He finished with eight tackles (six solo), a sack, a pass break up, and two quarterback hurries.
Honorable Mention 2: Max Borghi should have finished with 177 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns. Unfortunately, this guy in the middle had to get involved:
What Needs Work: The Uniform Combo
When I saw the uniform reveal last week, I thought I was going to love the uni combination. In reality, I liked it a lot less than I thought I would.
I’ve decided I’m not a fan of the crimson logo on the anthracite helmet. Even though there’s a thin white outline around it, it’s still pretty hard to see — just not enough contrast. One easy fix would have made this a bang-up combo: White logo.
I know we want to get crimson in there as much as possible because, well, crimson is the primary color. But in this case, I think the crimson numbers on the jerseys give you enough that I don’t think the crimson is required on the helmet.
But if people are married to the crimson logo on the anthracite helmet, can we at least make the white border thicker? Thanks in advance.
Up Next! UCLA
The Cougars opened this one as 19-point favorite, which is absolutely bonkers. Not because the Cougs aren’t 19 points better than the Bruins — they probably are — but because of the idea that the betting public would go for the idea of WSU being three TDs better than an LA school.
Such is the state of these two programs, which is beyond bonkers. An LA school should never be this far down, particularly in light of the recruiting done by Jim Mora. But Chip Kelly hasn’t yet done what he was brought in to do. In fact, here’s a startling stat: In his last four seasons as a head coach — his last year with the Philadelphia Eagles, one year with the San Francisco 49ers, and one-plus year at UCLA — Kelly is a combined 11-35. He lost more games last season (nine) than he did in four years at Oregon (seven).
It appears there’s actually a reasonable chance that the Chip Kelly robot has actually been broken by all this losing. Here’s what he said this week on the heels of his team dropping to 0-3 after a 48-14 whipping at home by the Oklahoma Sooners:
Don't expect to ever see the wishbone at UCLA. Chip Kelly: "That’s not happening here so that’s not what we’re going to run here and that’s not what we’re going to do. But in the ideal world, if I was going to play Madden, I’d line up in the bone and run the ball every play."— Ben Bolch (@latbbolch) September 16, 2019
At this point, it’s hard to imagine the Bruins coming out swinging on Saturday. But ... I guess you never know?
Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN.