BOULDER, Colorado – As I came to grips with the end of WSU’s eight-game win streak from my perch in the upper level of Folsom Field – a 38-24 loss at the hands of the No. 10 Colorado Buffaloes – an odd sight caught my eye.
Students rushing the field.
I had to pause and soak it in for a minute, the idea that a win over Washington State – WASHINGTON STATE! – was that meaningful for a conference opponent.
And for a moment, I actually felt a little bit better.
We Cougs all obviously were acutely aware of how huge a game this was for WSU, given this was the team’s first true opportunity to show the country just how good it was. I spent all week getting incredibly excited, partly because I’d be traveling to the game with some of my closest friends and partly because this was WSU’s first game as a ranked opponent against a ranked opponent in more than a decade.
These games haven’t come around all that often for us throughout our history, and I wanted to really enjoy it, immersing myself in the matchup.
But outside of the normal game-prep angles, I didn’t really think all that deeply or philosophically about Colorado. And one thing I clearly wasn’t understanding: Just how big of a game this was for them. I guess I just assume that other fans are used to success, used to being ranked, and that cool games like this come along with some regularity for everyone other than us.
That hasn’t been the case for some time for Colorado; their current students weren’t even born when Bill McCartney patrolled the sidelines, and while the depths plumbed under Dan Hawkins and Jon Embree weren’t quite Wulffian, they were pretty low for a school that had competed for Big 12 titles before coming to the Pac-12.
And on Saturday, there the Buffaloes were – carrying an 8-2 record and a No. 10 ranking … predicted to finish last in the Pac-12 South before the season started … and controlling their own destiny for the Pac-12 championship.
Oh boy, was Folsom Field ready for this one.
The fans were lit, and the players on both sides were determined to match it, something I hope you all could feel from your living rooms. As one CU fan put it to me, “I can’t remember the last time this stadium was this loud.” And it was the presence of ranked Washington State that turned it up to 11.
What an incredible validation of the jobs that a pair of Mikes – Leach and MacIntyre – have done to turn a couple of Pac-12 cellar dwellers into programs that, with just one more win each, will be facing each other again in less than two weeks for the right to play in the Rose Bowl. (Or, in Colorado’s case … the College Football Playoff??)
And the game matched the hype. It was a hard-fought contest worthy of these two programs, both of which have displayed a tremendous amount of guts and grit and determination to do the hard work to pull themselves out of the muck of their previous administrations.
In fact, there’s really only one lamentable aspect of this whole thing.
I won’t rehash all those plays here. You watched the game. You know them. You know how enormous they were, and how critical they were to WSU’s chances to win.
And you know how just how damaging they were.
It’s so rare to be able to look at a play – let alone multiple plays – and draw a straight line to points, but WSU’s mistakes allowed us to do just that without even needing to stretch reality with hypotheticals. And while the game was indeed proof of just how far the Cougs have come, it’s also clearly evidence of how far they still have to go if they truly are to become a year-in, year-out force in the Pac-12.
Yeah, they are good enough to beat up some good teams when they’re on their game. They are good enough to really blow the doors off some truly awful teams. And they are even good enough to make some big blunders and still come back and avoid an upset against teams that are somewhere between below average and bad.
Those are all marks of a very good team.
What they are not – yet – is good enough to beat an excellent, well-coached team while making key mistakes that directly impact their ability to either put points on the board or keep points off it.
And I think that was what impressed me the most about Colorado. I wasn’t sold coming into the game on how good the Buffs really were, but that is a very well-coached team.* They’re disciplined and committed to what they’re doing, and beyond that, Colorado’s staff coached the living daylights out of that game.
*Side note to my Colorado friends: I really, really hope you figure out a way to keep MacIntyre out of this round of the coaching carousel. I know I’m not telling you anything you don’t know when I say he’s awesome, but just know that I now know that he’s awesome, and having been where you were with a coach who was just dreadful and being where you are now with a coach I’d like to keep around a while, I wish nothing but the best for you!
WSU’s defense still has a fair number of flaws and weak spots, and while defensive coordinator Alex Grinch generally does an incredible job of masking those soft areas, they’re clearly there when you see true freshmen playing significant roles in the front seven and see a guy the size of a safety playing linebacker.
Whether it was the extreme tempo designed to wear down the defense at altitude, making sure to stay away from Shalom Luani in order to minimize his ability to impact the game, simply running Sefo Liufau with what looked like a throwback to what Brian Anderson thought was an old inverted veer, or dragging out a crazy friggin’ trick play late in the fourth quarter to put the game away, Colorado gave a master class lesson in limiting WSU’s strengths and exploiting its weaknesses.
And it wasn’t just when the Buffs had the ball. WSU had a game plan right out of the gate to attack Colorado’s hyper aggressive corners down field, and it obviously worked for a time. Luke Falk was dropping dimes all over the field in the first half, hitting big play after big play. I remarked to Craig and PJ that this was as dialed in as I could ever remember seeing Falk, as even the incompletions were right on his receivers’ hands.
But in the second half? Colorado adjusted. And for whatever reason, WSU couldn’t adjust back, and Falk finished with what was probably his worst game at WSU. It was frustrating to watch, but much credit needs to go to Colorado defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, who was relatively unknown to me last week but I’ve since learned is well known in coaching circles for being pretty great at his job* and, well, I’d now definitely have to agree with that assessment.
*Side note No. 2 to my Colorado friends: Figure out a way to hang onto that guy, too!
So now the elephant in the room is this: Will WSU be able to respond to this disappointment? The players clearly were affected by the loss, even though – as we all are well aware – the game was ultimately meaningless in the grand scheme of the ultimate goal of winning a Pac-12 championship.
Who knows if being in Pullman all week with no classes nor classmates will be a benefit or a detriment to getting past this? What I do know is this: Over the past two years, these guys have truly taken Mike Leach’s one-game-at-a-time mantra to heart, and they have seemed to be able to flush disappointment – whether it a loss or even a particular play within the game – better than most.
I mean, this is the group that came back from a pair of losses to open the season, including one that was quite embarrassing, to rip off eight consecutive victories and put itself in position to claim a Pac-12 championship with a win in the Apple Cup.
I’m betting they’ll come back strong again to give Washington everything those Huskies could possibly want.
What We Liked
I was so impressed with the way WSU was able to match Colorado’s intensity out of the gate, going toe-to-toe with them. And for the first 40 or so minutes, the Cougs accepted every body blow the Buffs could throw at them, even taking a lead with a few minutes to go in the third quarter.
I think it’s important to remember this in spite of the way they faded down the stretch.
Yes, there were the aforementioned mistakes that would eventually prove to be too much for WSU to overcome, but in no way did the moment look to big for them, and in no way did I walk away from that game thinking WSU was clearly inferior. I mean, through one half of play I was pretty convinced that WSU was clearly the superior team, given the fact that Colorado had to feel a bit fortunate to not be down by three touchdowns instead of just three points.
And, to be honest, I think the Cougs’ modest drop in the polls after the loss is a clear reflection of that.
Credit to Colorado for seizing the opportunity. Sometimes the game just gets away from you at the end, and that’s how it felt to me – there was just this air of inevitability in the final 15 minutes, even as WSU was only down a touchdown for most of that.
I’d love to see these two teams go at it again in 11 days on a neutral field that’s not a mile above sea level as each of these tremendously talented coaching staffs continue the chess match. That would be too much danged fun.
BONUS WHAT WE LIKED
I haven’t traveled to a WSU road game that wasn’t in Seattle in quite a while – I’m pretty sure the last one was at Stanford in 2006 – so I was super excited to not just get to go on the road to see a Coug game, but do it in one of those “bucket list” kind of venues.
Folsom Field did not disappoint! As you walk up the hill on which the stadium resides, the beauty of the red sandstone that covers the structure (and all the buildings around it) is striking, perfectly complementing the hues of the mountains that frame the setting. Watching Ralphie run around the field is one of those things I’ll never forget, nor will I forget how kind and welcoming the vast majority of Colorado fans were, both before and after the game.
I don’t have a long list of venues to which I’ve traveled, but this one – for the entire gameday experience – is at the top.
The result of the game notwithstanding, it was an incredible trip. Boulder is a really cool town, with great local beverages (hitting up the Avery Brewery was a highlight) and fun establishments (your delicious food made up for your bathroom trickery, World Famous Dark Horse Bar and Grill). It also didn’t hurt that I got to hang out with some college buddies and three of CougCenter’s finest in the process.
Whenever WSU returns to Boulder (probably 2018?), strongly consider making that trip if you have the means to do so.
It appears that Jamal Morrow simply refuses to accept all our fawning over Boobie Williams.
Morrow came up with two of the most impressive plays of the game: One a long TD catch in which he got behind a linebacker and split the safeties (the second such time he’s done that this year), the other a 4th-and-1 run in which he looked to be dead to rights before somehow turning it into a 30-yard gain, extending a drive that would result in WSU’s final touchdown for its final lead.
Morrow now leads the team in yards from scrimmage, and it’s not even close. His 1,007 yards lead Williams by nearly 200, and he’s quietly making a case for WSU’s skill position MVP. But really ... how is it that his case is quiet? He’s gaining 8.1 yards every time he touches the ball, compared to 6.4 and 6.1 for his backfield mates. It’s the second consecutive year he’s been significantly ahead of the other running backs in yards per touch.
And we still get him for another year!
Honorable mention: Safety Jalen Thompson has had the kind of year you expect from a true freshman thrust into a starting role right out of the gate – some good, some thisclosetomakingaplay, and a lot of real head-scratching moments.
This sure felt like one of his better games. He still generally only got thisclosetomakingaplay, but against a team that had some serious deep threats, he was solid on the back end.
It’s never easy starting as a true freshman, and Thompson has taken his lumps. But he’s growing. And we’re going to need him this weekend against John Ross and Dante Pettis. Maybe he can move from being thisclosetomakingaplay to actually making the play. That would be awfully cool.
What Needs Work
At some point, WSU has got to solve the running QB thing.
I spent some time hanging out after the game with The Spokesman-Review’s Jacob Thorpe and Cougfan.com’s Skyler Cracraft over some bourbon, and we were kicking around ideas for why the Cougars seem to struggle so much with mobile QBs. Cracraft, who has a fair amount of direct experience with what Grinch is trying to do, said that the Cougars – whether because of scheme, or technique, or personnel (or some combination of all three) – are just really struggling account for the quarterback on a consistent basis.
While I’m not one who understands the finer points of defensive strategy, that certainly seems to pass the smell test when you see the Cougs shut down explosive running backs such as Royce Freeman and Christian McCaffrey before allowing Sefo Liufau to repeatedly waltz into the end zone, following in the footsteps of such luminaries as Gage Gubrud, Kevin Hogan, Jeff Lockie, Jerrard Randle and that dude from Portland State whose name I can’t even remember anymore.
The thing is, WSU actually has done a good job this year against mobile QBs; for example, Arizona’s Brandon Dawkins is a heck of a runner, and his legs really had no impact on the game as WSU crushed the Wildcats.
And I think therein lies the key: Ultimately, Colorado wasn’t able to exploit whatever weaknesses exist for WSU because of some magical scheme strength or weakness. No, the difference between this was the play of the defensive line which – and there’s really no polite way to put this – got whupped up and down the field.
There was precious little of the disruptive penetration that had allowed to WSU to shut down some potent rushing attacks and soar to the top of the Pac-12 rush defense rankings. The outgrowth was that Colorado’s linemen were able to get to the second (and sometimes third) level and wash out the Cougs’ undersized replacement linebackers.
That hasn’t happened very much this year. And I honestly don’t know if I believe it’s worth wringing our hands over at this point – the Cougs aren’t going to face that kind of a quarterback this Friday, and if they make it to the Pac-12 Championship Game, the only way they’ll face a running quarterback as good as Liufau is if they face Liufau again.
And if that happens, that game won’t be at altitude with a hostile partisan crowd. And you better believe Grinch will have something cooked up.
Lol like I even have to tell you.