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The Monday After: In search of the elusive (and largely mythical) ‘complete game’

No, WSU hasn’t been at the top of its game for all four quarters the last couple of weeks. And that’s not really all that damning, to be honest.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Arizona State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

As the blokes on one of my favorite podcasts would say, the season is now seven-twelfths over (which does not reduce!), and yet, strangely, I feel like I still don’t have a great grasp on how good I believe this team actually is.

There’s a pretty involved discussion over here about whether the Cougars should be ranked after their latest win, against Arizona State. And while I think they probably are one of the 25 best teams in college football (and certainly would be ranked if not for that blasted loss to EWU), I also totally understand why other teams are more attractive to voters (mostly because of that blasted loss to EWU).

And, without a doubt, WSU could have done any number of things over the past few weeks to make its case more impressive. In each of the last four games, WSU both left touchdowns on the table while simultaneously allowing late touchdowns when the game was seemingly well in hand. Is WSU ranked if the last four scores look something like 58-26, 42-10, 35-14 and 37-24? It certainly increases the likelihood.

Jacob Thorpe took on that topic on Monday, writing, “Nearly halfway through Washington State’s Pac-12 schedule, an undefeated conference record remains there for the taking. But the Cougars have to stop trying to give games away.” While I agree with that in principle — I mean really, who would disagree with that? — I also wonder if we’re making an error in attribution when it comes to the inability to completely dominate an opponent for four quarters.

Think about last season: The Cougars played eight games decided by a touchdown or less, winning five of them, and yet I don’t really recall anyone saying “the Cougars have to quit playing so many close games! It’s going to come back to bite them eventually!!” I think there was a tacit understanding that the Cougars were a team good enough to play just about anyone to the wire and fortunate enough to pull out victories more often than not.

I believe you can apply a similar concept here. WSU is a pretty good team! Good enough to win comfortably against a bad team, good enough to smack around a depleted team, good enough to control the game against an underachieving (but still really talented on one side of the ball) team, and good enough to keep a not-great-overall-but-very-very-good-at-beating-teams-(ESPECIALLY-YOU)-at-their-place team at arm’s length.

Really, that’s pretty good. But instead of asking how WSU can get better in the fourth quarter, I think this is the question people maybe should be asking: Is WSU actually good enough to control four consecutive games — against teams that have whipped them in the recruiting rankings for years — from kickoff to final whistle?

Obviously it’s what you want and hope for. It’s what the team will strive for. But as a fan, I’m not sure putting together four complete quarters against reasonably talented teams is anything we should be expecting. And because of that, I’m not yet convinced there’s anything particularly egregious going on in the fourth quarter that needs to be “corrected” — it could just be the normal ebb and flow of a game that involves WSU and its peculiar offensive and defensive philosophies rearing its head late for a couple of consecutive weeks.

I mean, we can say the game wasn’t as close as the final score the last couple of weeks, but the reality is that those weren’t garbage-time TDs that were given up. It probably does say at least a little something about the actual quality of WSU that it lacked whatever it is that would have allowed them to run away from UCLA and ASU.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Arizona State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

(The team, of course, believes there is something there they want to fix. More power to ’em. I’d expect nothing less.)

But before you think this means I’m somehow down on the team, here’s the kicker: This makes them pretty much just like every top 25 team outside of the top 10 or so. (And that might be generous.) Everyone struggles to put together four quarters on a weekly basis; such is the nature of teams with rosters populated with players aged 18-23. It’s just that some teams are so wildly talented (or playing such terrible opponents, wink wink), you just don’t notice it when their play drops off a bit for a stretch.

Take a closer look at some teams in the bottom 20 percent of the polls. No. 22 Navy? Struggled with UConn and Tulane and actually lost to Air Force by a couple of touchdowns ... which was the Falcons’ last win before their current three-game skid. No. 23 Colorado? Barely held off what we now recognize is a pretty awful Oregon team, lost to what was, at the time, a below-.500 USC, then barely squeaked out a win against Stanford. No. 17 Utah? Lost to Cal, barely squeaked out a win at Oregon State, allowed five TD passes from UCLA’s backup QB.

Nobody in the bottom half of these polls is a world beater, and once you realize that, you get a lot less stressed out about WSU’s fourth quarter “issues.”

Sure, WSU has a loss to FCS Northwest, and polls tend to be a weird mixture of power ranking and resumé and that’s keeping the Cougars just on the cusp of the Top 25 (for now), but I’d take WSU (without hesitation) against anyone in the bottom five of those poll, and I think they’d have a great shot at beating just about anyone other than the top-tier teams without even necessarily being on their very best game. That’s pretty much the very definition of a “very good” college football team.

So, for that reason, I’m not stressing out too much about how good this team really is (or isn’t), not worrying too much about whether the fourth quarter thing is a real, skill-driven issue that needs to be coached better. I’m just sitting back here like Kermit sipping on a cup of tea in awe of the fact that WSU just made it through Oregon, at Stanford, UCLA and at ASU an unblemished 4-0.

Sure, the Cougs are a little worse for wear. Luke Falk took a beating in Tempe. Cody O’Connell, the team’s best offensive lineman, left last week with an injury. But the Cougars have made it through the gauntlet. Now they just have to avoid stubbing their toe against some teams that are still fighting, but clearly not as good, before ramping it up again with two tough games to end the season.

And who knows? Maybe they improve enough (and get healthy enough) over this stretch of games to become that team that can truly step on an opponent’s throat for four quarters.

Or maybe they don’t. In which case they’d still be pretty darn good and still a lot of fun to watch!

What We Liked

NCAA Football: Washington State at Arizona State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

I enjoyed the way the Cougars’ defense took advantage of an offense that lost its starting quarterback on the second drive of the game. Being the eternal optimist Coug that I am, I was like 90 percent sure this freshman was going to figure out a way to light us up.

Of course that never happened; Dillon Sterling-Cole finished just 7-of-16 for 86 yards and zero touchdowns. Arizona State resorted to its “Sparky” formation, in which the “quarterback” was either Demario Richard or Kalen Ballage on a large percentage of plays.

Even more encouraging was that the Sun Devils really didn’t experience all that much success with the one-dimensional power running attack. The ASU offense scored just 24 points, and — like the Oregon game — it was really only one breakdown that made the point total even that high. (This is the moment where I refer you to the text above for an explanation of why these big plays still occasionally happen — WSU’s margin for error just isn’t as great as other teams.)

ASU gained just 4.7 yards per play. That’s a pretty great defensive performance no matter who’s playing quarterback.

Who Impressed

NCAA Football: Washington State at Arizona State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

I have no idea how Luke Falk keeps getting off the turf. There have been a bunch of times where it feels like the heat he takes is as much his fault as his offensive line’s, but that most certainly wasn’t the case on Saturday.

ASU did what they do, blitzing like crazy, and unlike last year, they had a ton of success getting home. Falk was sacked a whopping seven times and hit a number of others, one of those times causing what appeared to be a non-throwing arm/shoulder injury near the end of the game.

Our standards are understandably high for him in terms of what he should be able to do in the passing game, and the passing game hasn’t generally shredded people the way we hoped it would this year. And it feels like a lot of that is on Falk.

But that should take absolutely nothing away from Falk’s toughness — and, by extension, his leadership — which is nothing short of amazing. We’ve been blessed with some amazingly tough guys triggering the WSU offense over the past decade (they’ve had to be), and I want to make sure I don’t take that for granted.

What Needs Work

Yikes, offensive line. You’ve been so good!

I guess the most disappointing part was that the line had very little trouble with ASU’s blitz-happy scheme last year, only to put together a disastrous performance on Saturday. And I know that the left side of the line featured two inexperienced guys — Andre Dillard at tackle, and O’Connell and then B.J. Salmonson at guard — but the pressure was coming from everywhere, and not just on those zero blitzes where the Sun Devils were bringing more rushers than WSU had blockers.

One thing I trust is that Clay McGuire will help those guys get it figured out. They’re too good of a group not to.

Honorable Mention: Seven friggin rushes for the running backs? SEVEN? And only ONE for James Williams??

That’s a serious throwback, and continues the downward trend of rushing attempts in the last two games. I’ve said before that I don’t running the ball to run the ball is necessary, but there’s no possible way that Falk was presented with only seven solid opportunities to run the ball, and it likely impacted WSU’s ability to throw it.

There simply must be more production out of the running game, and there simply must be more of a commitment to it than has been present in the last two weeks. Hopefully that starts on Saturday.

Honorable Mention 2: Third down was the turd down and sabotaged a lot of what WSU was able to do on offense — just 4-of-13 compared to 7-of-15 for ASU. I’m not overly concerned about it, as WSU has been excellent on third down. But it wasn’t good and needs to get better again.

Up Next!

The Cougs travel to Corvallis on Saturday to take on a mildly dangerous Oregon State team that’s fighting the good fight week after week, even as the Beavers are outmanned. To be frank, it’s a really dangerous game, given the highly emotional stretch of games the Cougars just completed. Some might call it a trap game.

Kickoff is at 7:45 p.m. PT on ESPN2.