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The Monday After: When winning becomes irritating

We probably shouldn’t complain when our teams are good. WSU’s win over Utah this weekend put that idea to the test.

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Washington State v Utah Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

You might remember that back in 2008, the Washington State Cougars were excellent at the sport of basketball. And unless you’ve been reading this site for a long time, you probably didn’t know that I’m actually a hoop head at heart.

My original foray into writing about WSU sports was a Wordpress blog about Tony Bennett’s teams, and I used to do some national college hoops writing on the side for the now-defunct Basketball Prospectus (Craig and I were in a book together!) as well as Sadly, Ken Bone and Ernie Kent made it a lot less fun to write about basketball, so I don’t do a lot of that anymore.

Anyway, that 2008 season came with great anticipation. The Cougs were coming off a shocking appearance in the NCAA tournament, they returned almost everyone, and they consequently began the campaign ranked in the top 10. A second consecutive appearance in the Big Dance seemed to be a foregone conclusion; the only thing that was up in the air was how far they could go.

(Don’t worry. I’ll bring this back around to football in a minute. Promise.)

I spent that entire season parsing every result. Everything was put in the context of what it meant for the postseason. Were they trending up or down? Were the victories as big as they should be? What did it mean that they struggled a little to beat Boise State? Were we doomed because couldn’t beat UCLA, Stanford and Arizona? Everything was looking ahead, looking ahead, looking ahead.

When it was all over, I came to a bummer of a realization: I spent so much time worrying about what each individual result might say about how the Cougs might perform in the NCAA tournament, I didn’t spend nearly enough time enjoying the fact that, you know, we were ranked in the top 10 and winning the vast majority of our games.

(However, I did make sure that I got maximum enjoyment from beating Washington on senior night before kicking the snot out of Luke Harangody and Notre Dame.)

Since I’m a graduate of WSU and a fan of Seattle sports, good times are ... fleeting. I resolved after that season that I would do my best to just enjoy the success of my teams in the moment. And I think I generally do a good job of that.

You probably can see where this is heading. I’ll tell on myself a little bit and admit that I didn’t do a very good job of this on Saturday.

OK, I did a terrible job.*

*Never tweet.

As Hercules Mata’afa put together a once-in-a-generation kind of game ... while the defense turned in one of the more spectacularly fun performances imaginable ... I spent three-plus hours seething about the ineptitude of WSU’s offense, apparently unable to even write a coherent sentence by the time the third quarter rolled around.

The constipation was back. And it broke me just a little bit.

WSU has been held below 4.0 yards per play seven times under Mike Leach. The first five times were in his first two seasons. The sixth came in 2014.

Saturday was the seventh. It took them 86(!!) plays to get to 338 yards — that’s an average of 3.9 yards. No matter what you think of Utah’s defense, there is zero excuse — zero — for WSU to add to that list of sub-4.0 games.

Not with a fifth-year QB who has made 40-some starts at the helm. Not with the weapons Leach and his staff have amassed on that side of the ball. With apologies to the hard working young men of 2012 and 2013, there is simply no comparison between then and now.

Of course, there’s a larger context here. The Cougs didn’t break me because they had an off game; they broke me because this has been a constant source of consternation throughout the season, and because we know — we absolutely know — that this offense is capable of more, thanks to what a different quarterback has done with identical complementary parts against identical defenses.

There was a sense on Saturday that Speed D was gift wrapping the game, and that the offense was screwing it up by not burying the Utah Utes early. There’s actually a way to quantify that. Noted CFB advanced stat nerd Brian Fremeau has a chart to show how many points an offense would be expected to score based on the starting field position of its drives. These “expected points” are compiled from 167,390 non-garbage time drives across all of FBS for the past 10 seasons.

Let’s look at WSU’s first five takeaways*, which produced spectacular field position. An average FBS offense would have been expected to score 21 points off those turnovers; WSU produced 23.

*I eliminated the last two interceptions because the final one came at the gun, and the one before that came with just a minute to go, and WSU was trying to run the clock out rather than score.

Now, you might say, “Well, they did what they were supposed to do, right?” Except ... any of you out there fancy this an average FBS offense? The is the Freaking Air Raid. Is that what we’re supposed to be dealing with here? I thought we were supposed to be fielding a ruthless killing machine that smells the end zone like Mata’afa smells a sack and gets off on burying teams under an avalanche of points — not a bunch of guys who are content to rely on the leg of a field goal kicker.

When you include the rest of the drives, the total balloons to 40 expected points. Again: An average FBS offense — something like, well, Utah — should have been able to score 40. Mike Leach’s vaunted Air Raid could only muster 33 (incredibly uninspiring) points. That’s mostly because you’re still expected to score some points even when you don’t start on the other team’s half of the field, but true to form, the Cougs couldn’t really move the ball well enough to do much when starting with a long field.

It’s was good enough to win the game, sure, and maybe that should be enough for us. But it also was bad enough to frustrate the crap out of any fan. And probably also the head coach himself.

The dirty little open secret among WSU fans is that this isn’t actually new. While broadcasters continue to fawn over Falk and the Air Raid, we know what we saw on Saturday actually is business as usual; Fremeau pegs the WSU offense as 80th nationally — eight-zero, basically bottom third — in opponent-adjusted drive efficiency. Last year, we were 20th. Under a fifth-year senior quarterback with 40 starts, the offense consistently underperforms what just an average offense would be expected to produce on a drive-by-drive basis.

Because of that — and because of the rise of the Speed D — the Cougs have become the college version of my other favorite football team, the Seattle Seahawks: A defense-first squad with with just enough offense to both win games and leave you feeling like the team isn’t coming close to approaching what should be its considerable ceiling. Mike Leach is managing games like Pete Carroll, punting for field position, kicking long field goals, and taking knees at the end of a half when he’s got a chance to score. It’s like I’ve been transported to some kind of bizarro football universe. (Side note: Henceforth, any criticism of Leach as being “inflexible” is null and void.)

That’s why this is maddening as a fan. The Speed D might not be the Palouse Posse, but it’s only a notch below. Pair that with a top 20 offense — what these guys were supposed to be, and what I think we all believe they’re capable of — and you’re talking about a legit top 10 team that’s probably sitting at 10-1 right now with a real shot at making the College Football Playoff.

Instead, it’s been paired with an average-ish offense and we’re 9-2. That’s obviously still fantastic, and the sort of record our fans have longed for over the years. But because of the manner in which we’ve once again arrived at the verge of a Pac-12 Championship Game, I find that I have to remind myself to enjoy this.

It doesn’t seem like it should take this much effort. Take, for example, my excitement level about the Apple Cup.

Is Luke Falk going to give me a candy bar or kick me in the junk? Who knows! He’s capable of both, and since the answer to that question probably determines whether we end up in Santa Clara, I don’t feel real great at the moment.

I want to believe Falk is going to be locked in for a shot to win a conference championship. I want to believe he’s going to show up big in his final chance to win an Apple Cup. But his numbers away from Martin Stadium over the past calendar year are borderline horrendous, and after he followed up the good feelings of Stanford with that turd on Saturday (69 passes, 311 yards, 3 TDs/2 INTs), I’m not sure there’s a rational reason to think this game will produce something different. Instead, there’s every reason to think he’ll be — at best — quite mediocre.

The thing that gives me the most hope is that I feel good that the defense probably will do its part, given that, A) they’ve done that in 10 of 11 games so far, and, B) Washington currently is a fairly one-dimensional team with a quarterback prone to make mistakes when pressured. Speed D tends to feast in those circumstances.

I still can’t quite believe I’m typing this, but — like the Seahawks — WSU’s best chance to beat Washington probably is to hope for a dominant defensive performance with the quarterback doing just enough with his mistake-free conservative game managing to eke out a low-scoring affair.

If that happens? I promise to enjoy it. No qualifications necessary.

(I also promise to not tweet.)

What We Liked

Washington State v Utah Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

At times this year, I’ve found myself running out of ways to praise the defense. Speed D attacks, Speed D gets lots of tackles for loss, Speed D is a lot of fun, etc. etc.

Taking the ball away seven times, though? That was a new one!

I wish I had lots of insightful words to add, but I don’t. I just don’t have many more ways to say “they’re freaking awesome.” Pretty much the only way I know how to deal with this is to try and put it in some kind of historical context.

  • The last time WSU took the ball away seven times was in 2003 (those guys did it twice, believe it or not).
  • They’ve got double-digit tackles for loss in three games this season; that’s only happened in a single season one other time since 2000.
  • If they get their third consecutive double-digit TFL game against Washington, it will be the first time that’s happened since at least 2000.

Too cool.

Who Impressed

Washington State v Utah Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

Mata’afa was a monster, but you’ve probably read enough about that. I’d like to highlight another defensive lineman who has had a great season: Daniel Ekuale.

His numbers aren’t as gaudy as Mata’afa’s. But he has been a stud in the middle taking over for Robert Barber, penetrating and generally disrupting blocking schemes, causing runners to search for a hole and run right into the waiting arms of Jahad Woods, Frankie Luvu, Justus Rogers, Hunter Dale, Jalen Thompson, Robert Taylor, etc.

We spent what seemed like a massive portion of our offseason wringing our hands over whether the interior of the defensive line would hold up to the rigors of Pac-12 play. The answer is now clear and obvious, given that they got shoved around for exactly one half of one game. And Ekuale is a huge part of that.

He had just one tackle against the Utes. But it feels like that doesn’t even come close to measuring his impact.

What Needs Work

Here were Erik Powell’s kickoffs on Saturday:

  1. Touchback.
  2. Touchback.
  3. Touchback.
  4. Touchback.
  5. ...

6. Touchback.
7. Touchback.
8. Touchback.

I wonder what happened on the fifth kickoff? What could have possibly caused Powell to suddenly kick the ball 20 yards shorter than he’d been kicking it so far that day and 20 yards shorter than he would kick it on the subsequent three kickoffs?

It couldn’t possibly be the special teams coach trying to get cute and pin a team deep, could it? COULD IT??

Up Next!

BYE. Guaranteed not to lose this week!

If you’d like a quick-and-dirty Pac-12 North rooting guide this weekend, none of the weekend’s results have any bearing on the Cougs, other than maybe bowl positioning, for which there are so many options there’s really no simple way to lay it out.

So, just go ahead and root for maximum pain for Washington — if Stanford beats Cal, the Huskies can’t win the Pac-12 North no matter what happens in the Apple Cup; that honor will go to either the Cougs if they win or Stanford if they lose. And, of course, go ahead and root for Utah to really wreck the Huskies’ season.