A lot of virtual ink has been spilled in the past 48 hours, debating whether the Washington State Cougars’ 31-0 victory over Montana State in the 2017 opener was dominant enough. I’ve waffled back and forth on that.
On the one hand, in addition to the 31-point margin, WSU outgained MSU by nearly 370 yards, and the Cougars more than doubled up the Bobcats in yards per play. As near as I can tell, the last time the latter happened was in 2013 (back-to-back against Idaho and Southern Utah). Never once did it feel like the Bobcats were any threat to actually win the game.
On the other hand, recent history against FCS opponents be darned, the Cougs were favored by 38. And let’s be honest — when 55 percent of the Air Raid’s targets go to running backs, it doesn’t exactly scream #BeatEmDown. It didn’t feel dominant, because it never really felt like WSU was dictating the game offensively, as the Cougs so often do.
I think I’ve settled on a little from Column A, a little from Column B; it was plenty dominant, and it probably could have been more so.
Montana State had quite a bit to do with that perception. Your suspicion that the Bobcats were engaged in a football version of Bennett Ball was confirmed by the Bobcats themselves after the game. Knowing there was no way they could go blow-for-blow with WSU, Montana State purposed to limit possessions by playing a style of defense that invited completions underneath in the hopes that the Cougars would make enough mistakes along the way.
“We just needed to tackle,” defensive back Bryson McCabe said. “That was the plan all along, having them throw the check-downs. They didn’t throw anything over top.”
Said linebacker Mac Bignell: “That’s what we wanted them to do the whole time. We executed it, we just needed to get the ball out (on the ground) a little more.”
Led by a quarterback making his 29th start, the Cougs didn’t make many mistakes — a fumble by sophomore receiver Isaiah Johnson-Mack was really the lone major blemish. Falk repeatedly weaponized his running backs in space, content to let them wreak havoc in the open field. I can only think of a couple of throws that could possibly be classified as even quasi-risky.
“They dropped eight,” Falk said. “Our whole offense is just based off what’s the leverage, what can we get into that’s a good play. (Against MSU) it wasn’t the deep ball or anything down the field.
“The beauty of this offense is if we can get it to a guy in space, this offense is great. It can be a running back, slot or outside guy, if doesn’t really matter.”
As unsexy as that was, it was more than enough when paired up with WSU’s suffocating defense. Montana State really couldn’t do anything offensively, failing to run or throw effectively as the Cougs flat whipped them up front. Hercules Mata’afa and his friends on the defensive line set up shop in the Bobcats’ backfield, leaving the linebackers free to chase down ball carriers and hit them — hard.
“That first drive you could sense the urgency and how fast they move and the quick fits,” MSU quarterback Chris Murray said. “Usually, on those times I did break, I would make that person miss and score, but it was really hard this time. It’s just a different skill level.”
“The thing that’s going to separate this group and their ability to climb in the Pac-12 North is the play of their front seven,” MSU head coach Jeff Choate, a former WSU assistant, said. “I thought Hercules was as advertised — that guy, we could not block him in any one-on-one setting, and that was really them controlling the line of scrimmage and getting us behind the sticks with negative plays.”
Should the Cougs have won by more? Probably. But WSU only had 11 drives in the game — they typically get 13 or 14 in a game — and one of them was of the one-play variety after a missed field goal at the end of the first half. However, I think we can agree that it’s not unreasonable to expect that the offense should have scored on more than half of its drives.
Should they have gotten some more explosive plays on offense? Again ... probably. Without the benefit of a better camera angle, it’s tough to know what opportunities were available downfield, but I have a hard time believing there weren’t options to allow one of WSU’s superior athletes to make a play on the outside down the field.
That said, I can’t get away from how different this game was from the past two openers. Falk has sometimes looked tight in these early games, overly wound. But on Saturday, he refused to get impatient, even as MSU dared him to. And the defense, rather than looking tentative or confused, was disciplined and lethal, save for a handful of missed tackles. If we blamed Mike Leach and Alex Grinch for the failures of the past, they deserve a lot of credit for having their team ready to go this time.
In the end, it’s not really all that important to me whether the team was dominant enough, to be honest. What I love is that the baseline is already so much higher than it was. One thing we know about Leach’s teams at WSU is that they get better as the year goes along — sometimes much better.
Maybe Montana State was the perfect opening opponent in that regard. Falk got to complete a ton of easy passes, and the defense got to pin its ears back against a one-dimensional unit. The Cougs didn’t have to fire on all cylinders to put together a comfortable win, and now we can see how these guys can improve and develop with an actual win in their pocket.
What We Liked
The fact that James Williams had 163 receiving yards has gotten a lot of attention, and deservedly so. But I want you to chew on this one for a second:
Combined, the running backs accounted for 354 yards of offense on 40 touches — 18 catches for 197 yards, 22 carries for 157 yards. Every time Williams, Jamal Morrow or Gerard Wicks touched the ball, WSU picked up nearly nine yards.
For years, we waited for guys in the backfield who could just make someone miss and then head off to the races. We finally have those guys, and it’s a lot of danged fun.
Side note: Yo, running back recruits — come play in the Air Raid!
I’d like to add my name to the list of people who thought sophomore safety Jalen Thompson was really good.
Thompson’s name popped up again and again during preseason camp, which wasn’t all that surprising to me — you could see him getting better and better last season after the rough start. He had a couple of the better plays in this one, sticking Murray in the open field and then later picking Murray off.
The interception was particularly impressive, as it’s the kind of play on which we’ve seen our safeties get burned in the recent past. With as much running as Montana State was doing, it’s easy for a safety to get sucked in, but Thompson kept his depth despite the play fake and was in a comfortable position to take the ball away.
I don’t know that we learned a whole lot on Saturday about how good the secondary actually is, but I think there’s reason to be excited about Thompson.
What Needs Work
The tackling was good at times, spotty at others. That’s not unusual for an opener, when the team hasn’t been going full-out in practice. I’m not concerned about it yet, but it definitely needs to get better.
Also, this is pretty nitpicky. Which is nice.
The Boise State Broncos make the return trip on the back end of the home-and-home series, and the Cougars have another opportunity on Saturday in Pullman to avenge another disappointment from last season.
The Broncos opened the year with a so-so victory over Troy at home, 24-13. It was a one-score game until Jake Roh (above) scored with just over two minutes remaining to provide the final margin.
What’s intriguing is that Roh’s touchdown reception came not from Brett Rypien, but from Montell Cozart — and Rypien wasn’t hurt. Cozart is a grad transfer from Kansas, and the plan all along was to play him as a dual threat option in the game. But it says something that when the game was still somewhat in doubt, Cozart was the guy who was in there to finish the job after Rypien was just 13-of-23 for 160 yards, no touchdowns and a pick six.
For now, there’s no “quarterback controversy”; Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said, “The only people that matter are the ones in this building that actually watch the film and I thought Brett played well.” Well then I guess that’s settled!
The offense was kind of a mess overall. The Broncos averaged just 4.7 yards per play, and Rypien was sacked four times by Troy, as Boise State’s offensive line struggled mightily. Cozart’s mobility helped in that regard, and one has to wonder when and how much BSU will use Cozart against WSU’s aggressive, penetrating front that teed off against the Bobcats. Cozart certainly is a more capable passer than Murray was, and — say it with me, all together now — is the type of QB with which WSU has struggled since seemingly forever. I’m certain that’s not lost on the Broncos’ offensive staff, which thinks playing two QBs is a strategic advantage.
“The mix of both those guys within our offense, I think it brings a different dynamic for defensive coordinators trying to plan,” offensive coordinator Zak Hill said.
Defensively, the Broncos were outstanding, racking up three takeaways, four sacks, and allowing just 215 yards. But that was against a below average midmajor team with a below average offense that had traveled all the way across the country to play on an ugly ass field. They’ll face a much different challenge in Pullman.
Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, with the game to be broadcast on ESPN.