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The Monday After: In win over Oregon, WSU’s swagger finally returns

You know, 15-yard penalties aren’t always the worst thing. Make Football Fun Again!

NCAA Football: Oregon at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

There were plenty of awesome moments during WSU’s beatdown of Oregon on Saturday night, but I’m toying with the idea that my favorite one wasn’t even an actual play.

Cole Madison got himself a 15-yard penalty on behalf of the group for this little demonstration, which everyone knows is BAD, but you know what’s good?

This team finally looking like football is fun again.

Different teams deal with the weight of expectations differently, and while I try to avoid playing sports psychologist, it sure looked like this particular collection of players was tight right out of the gate. It’s the kind of thing that makes fans question the actual talent level of their team when it can’t stop an FCS opponent and looks frustratingly slow doing it.

Then Boise State happened, and it sure felt like there were all sorts of opportunities missed that could have turned the game in WSU’s favor, but the team was again unsure of itself, making us wonder if we had it all wrong to begin with.

But Idaho came along at the perfect time, and while not a virtuoso performance, you could see the team getting its footing as the contest rolled along, particularly in terms of exerting its will on the opponent through physical strength. Then something happened during the bye week.

Someone convinced somebody that they could do the exact same thing and shove the football right up Oregon’s ass.

I have no idea who was pushing the point, or if it was even explicitly said, but I know this: In the ultimate demonstration of belief in WSU’s ability to physically dominate Oregon, Luke Falk handed the ball off in a number of situations that would have defaulted to “pass” in past years. Defenses often try to disguise what they’re doing to make WSU think they’ve got six guys in the box to discourage a run before sending one of those guys directly into coverage. On Saturday, Falk looked at some of those six-man boxes and said, “LOLOLOLOLOL fine leave six guys in there because that’s not even going to stop us.”

A great example is Gerard Wicks’ four-yard TD run on the first play of the second quarter. Oregon’s got six guys clearly in the box and not only does WSU run it anyway, it just doesn’t matter because four of our linemen wash out their entire front — seriously, if you want to see something funny, watch Madison (the right tackle) try and find someone to hit as his running back is slamming his way into the end zone:

Here’s an even better one: Morrow’s first TD. Oregon’s got six in the box with a seventh immediately running downhill in run support, and this time ... Morrow scampers in untouched.

Is it any wonder that play resulted in a celebration penalty? It’s like a swagger switch flipped on — “We knew Oregon couldn’t stop us and YEP WE WERE RIGHT.” The result was a loose, confident bunch of guys that looked about as different as could be from that group that crapped the bed against Eastern Washington. And if a 15-yard penalty is the price to be paid? Well, as left tackle Andre Dillard said when he met with the press on Monday, “It was worth it.” He also added, “To an extent,” because of course you can’t do this after every touchdown or every week.

But for this team in this moment? Yeah. It was worth it.

The fascinating thing to me is that this physical nature appears to be quickly becoming the identity of this offense. Football is a physical, violent game, and while Mike Leach has insisted that his teams can and will be physical even while throwing it 60 times a game, some teams really just need to punch people in the mouth* to feel that.

*Not literally, guys.

Beyond that, it seemed like for the first couple of games, everyone was looking around for someone to fill the leadership void left by the guys who graduated, take up that leadership mantle, and light a fire under the team. Gabe Marks seemed like a great candidate, but it’s hard to do when you can’t catch the ball because teams are rolling two and three guys at you in coverage on every play. (That’s not an exaggeration; Jason Gesser has a film breakdown on WSU’s Gameday app of Luke Falk’s 10-yard scramble, and there are literally three guys covering Marks.)

Eventually, these guys figured out that everyone had to do it, and they’ve done it by collectively smacking their last two opponents around.

Teams will adjust to what the Cougs are doing, probably as early as this Saturday. But here’s the thing: There’s absolutely zero mystery to it. This isn’t smoke and mirrors, which means Stanford better be ready to hit — and there actually are serious questions about whether the Cardinal will be ready to do that after getting truck sticked by Washington on Friday.

And if Stanford isn’t Stanford and the Cardinal are forced to adjust by dropping a seventh guy closer to the line of scrimmage ... well, that’s when the passing game takes off. This is how the Air Raid is supposed to operate. Do you realize WSU still dropped back to pass on 60 percent of its plays? That’s pretty darn close to the sweet spot, which I’d guess is around 65 percent, if Leach had his druthers.

That’s when this offense gets vicious. That’s when it gets fun again.

Morrow TD celebration

What We Liked

Brian Floyd wrote on Sunday about this team being on script, and it’s hard not to look at 2015 and see this season following a similar narrative arc. Could Boise State have been this season’s Cal? Could Oregon have been this season’s, well, Oregon — just a game earlier?

It sure seems like these guys are figuring it out faster than last season, which is obviously a really good sign, since Stanford and UCLA loom in the next two weeks.

A big part of this is Falk taking a big step forward this past week to reclaim his status as the Crimson Messiah. There still were times it appeared he held onto the ball a little bit, but on the whole, he seemed much more decisive and in command of the offense. Incredibly, he threw for 371 yards on 36-of-48 (75 percent) for a pretty good 7.7 yards per attempt ... and was a complete afterthought.

I don’t know if that’s the way Falk would prefer it, but here’s to betting he didn’t mind it one bit.

Who Impressed

NCAA Football: Oregon at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Shalom Luani, step right up. With Parker Henry sidelined with a case of Happy And Healthy, Luani has shifted from his role as free safety into nickelback.

And he’s been awesome.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that he’s thriving in a hybrid DB/LB role; although he’s only played safety here up until a couple of weeks ago, he’s a hard-hitting guy whose strength is his ability to roll downhill at a guy with the ball. Having him in that nickel against the run-heavy teams WSU is currently facing — and Stanford and UCLA certainly qualify — is a huge bonus.

If you haven’t had a chance to watch Gesser’s film breakdown, you should do that. He highlighted Luani’s sole tackle for loss where he shot into the backfield and beat the WR block to smother Royce Freeman just after the mesh point six yards behind the line of scrimmage. It was a tremendously athletic play and the sort of thing I’m sure Alex Grinch visualized when he put together his #SpeedDefense.

Luani was a big part of the reason why, outside of a 75-yard run when the game was more or less already out of reach, WSU held Freeman to just 63 yards on 18 carries.

Also, I’m just going throw this in here because it’s #Speedy and fun and indicative of the way the defense flew around all game:

What Needs Work

Thank goodness #SpecialForces didn’t cost us the game, as it (maybe might have) in the first two games. But for goodness sake, CAN WE FIX THIS INEXCUSABLE ABOMINATION OF A PLAY??

This plus another missed field goal in addition to the piss-poor assignment responsibility on Freeman’s TD kept this from looking like the total blowout that it actually was. This could have easily been something like 60-20. That it wasn’t that lopsided was a little bit of a shame.

Up Next

Let’s go cut down some trees: Saturday, 7:30 p.m. from Palo Alto, California. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.