They swear to me that there’s no such thing as preseason in college football, but if I was a pro football fan who only became aware of its college counterpart nine days ago, you’d definitely have been able to fool me after what we saw in the Washington State Cougars’ first two games.
In trying to think of adequate adjectives to describe Saturday’s walkover, I think the best one I can come up with is “casual.” PJ used the word “sleepwalkish.” I’m sure you have your own, and whatever it is, I feel confident it isn’t “sharp,” particularly in terms of the defense, which gave up more than 300 ugly-looking yards once again to a team that we all figure is pretty awful offensively.
And yet ... the Cougars still won by six touchdowns, a week after winning by roughly seven touchdowns.
When the outcome isn’t in doubt before kickoff, the natural inclination for fans is to look ahead from the very beginning, to try and contextualize every little thing in terms of WHAT DOES IT MEAN?? for the rest of the season. And if that was your tendency on Saturday, you might be terrified that we’re completely doomed against a competent offense, which (not so coincidentally) we’ll be facing on the road on Friday.
I’ve been there. But I’ve also learned to try and remember two things.
- Wins are good no matter what because winning is never to be taken for granted, and
- Each game is its own little snowflake.
Sports analytics are built on the idea that one performance is predictive of another, and there’s obviously truth to that. To that end, maybe we really should be concerned about the defense.
But I know the defense was objectively dominant for stretches on Saturday, I know the final margin was 42 points — right around the spread before kickoff, which reached as high as 44 points in some places — and I know the Cougars are a comfortable 2-0.
I’ve written before about the myth of the “complete game.” I’m a pretty big soccer fan, so I’m going to make a soccer analogy — if you’re not a fan, hang with me for a minute. One thing I love about the “beautiful game” is its (mostly) continuous nature, with very few long disruptions to the play. What that does is create a contest in which there are ebbs and flows of control by one team or the other, even when it’s clear one side is superior. No team, no matter how big the perceived mismatch, is expected to hold possession for virtually all of the game, or threaten the goal every time they touch the ball, because ... well, that would be ridiculous. It doesn’t happen.
However, being good enough to overpower your opponent for stretches — even just a handful — will win you a lot of games.
All sports are like that, really. In a basketball mismatch, it’s about the runs; in a baseball mismatch, it’s about the big innings. The rest of the contest is often marked by fairly pedestrian back-and-forth in which the lesser team scores some points or gets some hits.
So it goes in football. It’s just not reasonable to expect teams to dominate on both sides of the ball from start to finish, even when an opponent is completely overmatched. Even Alabama has a hard time doing that. Sometimes you get a blown assignment from one of the 11 players, and suddenly they score some points. Sometimes, the QB throws the ball right to a defender he didn’t see.
OK, so how good are you for the rest of it?
In each of the first two weeks, WSU was 40-plus points better for the rest of it. And it seemed the players could feel it, even on offense; it’s almost like Anthony Gordon looked around and went, “This is so easy that I don’t really have to try that hard,” threw an interception, woke up, and decided to crush UNC’s soul with three ruthlessly efficient drives in the third quarter.
Of course there are things that have to get better before Friday, but that’s because there are always things that need to get better. I think it’s a bit rash to make grand proclamations about what the Houston Cougars and D’Eriq King might do to us based on these first couple of games. I’ll dive a little more into the defense below, but it seems pretty clear to me that WSU treated these first two games as opportunities to experiment, to see what they have. And I think it’s fair at this point to affirm that this particular set of coaches knows what they’re doing.
If the defense gets torn up on Friday after unleashing a game plan the coaches have probably been working on for months? OK, fine — at that point, we’ve got 25% of the season telling us that the defense is bad and we adjust expectations accordingly.
Until then, I’m going enjoy that fact that we’re a relatively easy 2-0 and building toward the next challenge. And I’m going to let the coaches do what they’re so very good at: Develop players.
What We Liked
The offense was once again ridiculous, and I think it’s unfortunate that it’s just sort of being taken for granted like it’s normal.
This — what we have witnessed the last two games — is not normal:
Top 10 WSU offensive performances under Mike Leach (by yards per play)
|2||8/31/19||New Mexico State||Home||W||69||618||9.0|
I’ve seen a lot of casual hand waving about this, like “yeah this is what we should do” and “these teams are bad so it’s to be expected” etc.
No. Stop right there. THIS IS NOT TO BE EXPECTED. This is not normal.
This is bonkers.
“But we’ve seen this before,” you say. “We did this to UNLV and Idaho State back in 2011.”
In those two games, the offense went for 8.3 and 7.9 yards per play. In fact, going back to 2000 (as far back as the college football sports reference database goes), WSU has only hit the 9.0 mark four times — and two of those came in the last two weeks. We’ve played some very bad teams over that time, and only against Idaho in 2002 and 2006 have we done that ... and both of those were still a full yard off of last game’s offensive production.
Top 10 WSU offensive performances since 2000 (by yards per play)
|4||8/31/19||New Mexico State||69||618||9.0|
Oh, and do you remember that 77-7 beatdown of Southwestern Louisiana on Dad’s Weekend 1997? That was “only” 9.2 yards per play. (Thanks, Kevin, for digging that up!)
Again, I know we tend to focus on the negative, for a bunch of the reasons Craig and I discussed on the podcast this week, but holy hell, it’s time to get on the train for what this offense already is. While this kind of production is obviously unsustainable, we’ve had a lot of awesome offenses who have played against some terrible defenses that didn’t do this, so there’s really no reason to think this is some kind of a fluke.
Appreciate awesome, people.
For the last couple of years, Brandon Arconado’s name would come up during spring practice as a dark horse breakout candidate. I always shrugged off those stories as being the typical spring practice fare, where guys look good because everybody gets to touch the ball a bunch, and sometimes they get extra reps because someone is hurt, etc. Mostly, I just looked at history — it’s been quite a while since a former walk-on wide receiver had any appreciable impact, not really since John Thompson in 2016 — and the WRs are stacked with athletes.
And yet, there was Arconado on Saturday hauling in a team-high eight balls for a team-high 127 receiving yards. After two games, he leads WSU in both categories, and is actually second only to Borghi in touches. Some of that has to do with the fact that he has barely left the field; where the other three receiver positions have seen their usual 50/50 splits between the top two guys, Mike Leach has spelled Arconado with Kassidy Woods only sparingly while Jamire Calvin continues to recover from whatever injury is holding him back.
But pinning it all on snap volume would be selling Arconado short at this point: He’s leading in those categories because he’s been really damn good, full stop.
“He’s gotten better and better as time’s gone on,” Leach said. “He’s worked extremely hard, his body’s changed physically as far as speed and strength. … He’d be a guy in the conversation as far as being our most consistent receiver.”
And it was so great to get to see Gordon finally throw Arconado a touchdown — the joy on Gordo’s face as he ran to celebrate with Arconado belies how much it meant to them. In a postgame interview, Gordon talked about how they came up through the program together; think of all the passes between them in practice as they waited their turn behind their more heralded counterparts.
“It’s awesome watching Arconado have a career day, go over one-hundred yards, catch a touchdown,” Gordon said after the game. “First touchdown in two years for him, that’s pretty awesome. You know just watching him work his way up from a walk-on all the way up to now as a scholarship starting wide receiver. You know it’s just a connection we developed over the years, it’s been great, and being able to execute it during the game is something really rewarding.”
It’s such a cool story. Only in college sports, man.
Honorable mention: Ron Stone Jr., who was an absolute terror off the edge. Too bad he has to sit out the first half of the game thanks to one of the worst targeting calls you’ll ever see. Will Stone be this good against better teams? Who knows! But he sure looked fast on Saturday.
Honorable mention, part two: Travion Brown, who I predict will start a game this year. His size, his speed ... the true freshman has difference maker written all over him. He’ll struggle like any freshman, but his tools are undeniable. So excited for his future.
What Needs To Improve
Fine, let’s talk about the defense. I honestly don’t know how concerned to be. It sure seems like there’s a fair amount of experimenting going on with personnel, and I think it’s reasonable to believe that Tracy Claeys hasn’t exactly opened up the entire playbook.
Case in point: Pretty sure I saw Daniel Isom play three different positions — strong safety, corner and nickel.
If anything, they just seem to me to lack continuity and cohesion. It appears there are a lot of guys doing their own things, something supported by Leach’s “trying too hard” comments after each of the two games.
It might even come down to a little bit of a lack of leadership on that side of the ball — something that’s tough to overcome when you lose your talisman a few months before the season and there are a whole bunch of new guys. They miss Jalen Thompson, they miss Peyton Pelluer, they miss Hunter Dale, they miss Taylor Comfort. There’s still plenty of time for someone to figure out a way to step into that void, and I’m thankful the team can work out these kinks without paying for it with a brutal loss.
And by the way: Yes, we gave up 200 yards rushing, but it took Northern Colorado 54 carries to get there — just four yards per carry. Not exactly earth shattering stuff.
That said, I think we can probably put to rest any notion that this defense will end up better than the last couple of vintages. It’s possible something clicks, but I think I’d be fine with “about as good” in the end, especially considering the offense we’ve got.
The Houston Cougars are a team that it seems like many of our fans are dreading facing largely because of their quarterback, D’Eriq King. The old “we have huge problems with running quarterbacks” trope gets trotted out, and then we look at the current state of our defense, and the freak out commences.
We’ll get into this later in the week, but I’m just going to leave this here: I’m not convinced Houston is actually all that good. They got spanked by Oklahoma, and the offense looked pretty pedestrian in the process. Then, they had a big first half against Prairie View A&M in their home opener, only to completely sputter after the break.
They’re dangerous, for sure. Just keep in mind:
- WSU’s ypp at home against an FCS team last week: 10.4
- Houston’s ypp at home against an FCS team last week: 5.5
The game will kick off on Friday at 6:15 p.m. PT on ESPN.