You probably didn’t notice that I didn’t post a “Monday After” column last week. You probably also didn’t notice that there wasn’t one this week, until now. (If you did notice, I humbly ask for your forgiveness.)
The truth is, I’ve actually been having a hard time thinking of new things to write about the 2016 WSU Cougars. (Additionally, election night put a bit of a damper on my desire to write about the frivolity of sports.)
Please don’t mistake this for complaining. I’m most certainly not complaining. This is friggin’ awesome, amazing, whatever adjective you want to use. It’s especially sweet right now for me and the handful of our authors that have been around here since the beginning; we launched just in time for Paul Wulff’s first season, and it was really only through sheer hard headedness and a healthy sense of humor that our little corner of the internet survived those first four years. I’m sure the same can be said by the fine folks over at Cougfan, who have been at this even longer than we have.
How far has the program come? Here are a couple of fun charts:
To see this program not just jump up and have a good season, but appear that it actually has staying power for years, is what we’ve all been waiting for. It’s why we all lost our minds when Mike Leach was hired.
It just took a little while to get going. But now they’re really going.
As my friend Brian Floyd likes to say, the 2016 Cougs are “on script” — meaning, this team is playing basically as it did last year ... just better. Luke Falk is still a surgeon. The defense still lives on backfield disruptions, turnovers and limiting big plays. The team still shows tremendous poise in the face of adversity, coming back with ruthlessly efficient drives when necessary. “Wash, rinse, repeat” doesn’t make for real insightful writing, though.
Now, soundly defeating a few conference opponents is a new thing. But again ... when it starts happening with regularity, what more do you say about that? “Hey that was awesome!!!!!!!”? To be truthful — and the truth hurts — it’s so much easier to write when there are things to complain about.
Could I have complained about the start against Oregon State? Sure, but I figured something like that was probably coming, so it didn’t seem like a big deal to me and didn’t feel like it was worth harping on OMG HOW IN THE WORLD COULD WSU ALLOW OSU TO GET OUT TO SUCH A LEAD WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS TEAM????
As I suspected, and as it turned out, nothing was wrong at all. These things happen over the course of a season, even to good teams, and it’s fine. Washington is undeniably the best team in the conference, and the Huskies were taken to overtime by the worst team in the conference, the same team the Cougars just obliterated by 62 points. Shrug.
There are peaks and valleys in performance, for Alabama and everyone else. The key is to be good enough to still win when you hit a valley. And WSU has been. (Which is actually pretty incredible, if you remember how it wasn’t that long ago that the Cougs had to play a practically perfect game to beat conference foes.)
The amazing part to me about all of this is that while the forecast for WSU to be real good again this year relied on the household names who were returning — Falk, Gabe Marks, Shalom Luani, etc. — in actuality, for the Cougs to be better than they were last year was going to require some big time contributions from newcomers to the lineup. And that is exactly what Leach has gotten.
So, here’s where I want to go this week: Let’s recognize those guys, because they deserve it.
Robert Taylor, FS: The junior college transfer has been good enough on the back end to enable Luani to drop down into the nickel spot, and I dare say the move has improved both positions. Taylor seems to be a little stronger in coverage on the back end than Luani was, and Luani is a holy terror for opposing offenses when he’s consistently lined up within five yards of the line of scrimmage. That Taylor gives you something in the return game that we haven’t had for years is just gravy.
James Williams, RB: We all knew BOOBIE was comin’ after seeing the Thursday Night Football highlights and then watching him light up the Crimson and Gray game last spring, and he hasn’t disappointed. He’s been just as dynamic as we hoped, proving to be a tough and explosive runner with tremendous balance and acceleration. His presence has elevated the talent level of the running back position.
Cody O’Connell, LG: The “Continent” has been stoking fans’ imaginations since he signed with WSU years ago, and it’s clear he’s more than just a massive body — the redshirt junior is probably WSU’s best offensive lineman. With better agility than you’d expect from a 6-foot-8, 350-pound human, he’s equally effective in both pass and run blocking and has represented an upgrade over Gunnar Eklund.
Andre Dillard, LT: While maybe not an upgrade over Joe Dahl (yet), Dillard also hasn’t been a liability and has proven to be a steady player on Luke Falk’s blind side. And he’s likely just scratching the surface of his potential.
Garrett McBroom, DE: Defensive line was a position that badly needed an immediate infusion of talent with the departures of Destiny Vaeao and Darryl Paulo, and McBroom has provided that. His numbers are modest — just six tackles and one forced fumble — but he’s been a rock at a position often tasked with simply holding its ground. His strength also has allowed him to collapse the pocket from time to time, allowing Hercules Mata’afa (and others) to do what they do.
Isaac Dotson, WIL: Dotson isn’t exactly a newcomer; he’s seen a lot of snaps in his years. But the redshirt junior has never been able to consistently stay on the field. Until this year! He’s been an excellent replacement for Jeremiah Allison, ranking third on the team in both solo and total tackles.
Tavares Martin Jr., WR: After the graduation of Dom Williams, WSU needed a credible threat on the other side of Marks to keep teams honest. Whether Martin was going to provide that was a big question mark, and it looked early in the year as if it might be a problem spot. No longer: Martin is second on the team in receptions, third in receiving yards and second in receiving TDs. He looks ready to assume the mantle of go-to receiver when Marks departs at the end of this season.
What We Liked
The obvious answer here is “everything,” but if I’ve gotta pick one thing that is a little unique and different, how about the fact that the backups not only got plenty of run — many starters were out of the game before the end of the third quarter — but that the backups continued to dominate Arizona?
The fourth quarter stats are at the right. I know sometimes these things can just continue to roll downhill on a team that has packed it in, but more often than not, backups actually have a pretty hard time getting in sync. After all, not only are these guys who don’t typically get a lot of reps together, they’re usually still facing the other team’s best players who are still trying not to be embarrassed.
Of particular awesomeness was Tyler Hilinski, the man who could be leading this offense after any ill-fated play. He got a full quarter of reps, completing 15 of 17 passes for 163 yards and two touchdowns, including a 71-yard bomb to River Cracraft. The other TD was a scramble drill in which Hilinski kept his head up and eventually found Isaiah Johnson-Mack — the first touchdown of the freshman wide receiver’s career.
What Needs Work
I dunno ... maybe our DBs shouldn’t run into each other when they’ve got a guy blanketed and then give up a long TD?
When it’s 69-7, that’s pretty much all I got.
The California Golden Bears come to Pullman on Saturday for a 7:30 p.m. PT kickoff on ESPN. Sonny Dykes’ team presents a unique challenge in that they actually feature a quarterback who can complete a pass! It’s a vertical offense that’s going to test the Cougs in a way they haven’t been tested all year. We’re going to learn something new about WSU on Saturday, you can count on that.