What a year this week has been.
It’s a phrase that is now overused and cliché after the past 18 months, but let’s be honest: Phrases become overused and cliché for a reason, and it sure seems apt to describe the last seven days of Washington State football.
If Nick Rolovich’s firing feels that way to me — and I’m just some internet rando (albeit a heavily invested internet rando) who writes about the team in his spare time — I can only imagine how long it felt to the people who actually were affected by Rolovich’s decision to get himself fired and leave them in the lurch.
For me, Nick Rolovich invariably will be nothing more than a weird footnote in WSU football history, just one (very strange) point on the decades-long arc of my time on earth as a Coug. But for the players, coaches, and staff who were left behind to try and figure out a way forward with what amounted to one hand tied behind their backs? They don’t have decades. Between those who will graduate, those who will transfer, and those who will be relieved of their employment in January, I don’t think it’s overstating it to say that probably half of the people involved in Saturday’s game won’t be around by the time spring ball hits.
It’s those people that I continue to think about. They really wanted to win that football game on Saturday; some might say they needed to win it, both for their psyches and for their bowl prospects. And they damn near did.
But they didn’t. And that really, really sucks, because it’s painfully obvious that with just a little better play at the margins, they certainly could have won the game against a team that might not be top 10 good, but just broke back into the top 25.
There were lots of little reminders that WSU wasn’t operating with a full deck: The substitution issues on the first defensive drive, the leaky pass protection, the poor tackling, the lack of rhythm on offense ... it’s not hard to imagine how those plays at the margins get made with a full compliment of coaches. And that’s not even taking into account the blunders that might have come as a secondary effect of the mental toll of the week.
Some of the comments I’ve seen in various corners of the internet seem awfully callous to me in that regard. The comments aren’t mean, per se — but they definitely fail to recognize what everyone in that program went through last week. If I’m being honest, there were moments in the game where I was in that same head space, yelling at my TV as if this were just another game. But shortly after the game ended, I was reminded that it wasn’t just another game: Craig sent a picture of the team making its postgame trip to sing in front of the band, and I was just crushed for them.
If — for some reason — you’re still not convinced of their humanity, watch Abraham Lucas take questions after the game:
Throughout all of this, I have found Lucas to be a charming, thoughtful, articulate man, and he seems to have his finger on the pulse of the team in a way that only a guy who has seen what he has seen can. You might recall that, three games into the season, Lucas described the team as being a fighter who lacks a “chin,” with a “good initial punch” but no “stamina” for later in the fight.
That obviously turned around in the three-game win streak, but to me, Saturday was the ultimate testament to that: With every reason in the world to fold, these players did not.
“We lost to a good team but we didn’t roll over, either,” Lucas said after the game. “I think a lot of people nationwide and even in this community probably expected us to just roll over and die, but I mean that’s the great thing about this team is that nobody else matters outside the first floor and the coaches. Everything everything else is bollocks, so, it’s the team — outside opinions are exactly that, they’re opinions, they don’t matter and they’re not really credible. What is credible is us and that’s the only thing that will ever be credible in any team across America.”
It’s not lost on me that I definitely fall into Abe’s “not really credible” category. That’s OK by me. I’m not in that building, and he shouldn’t care at all what I think about anything.
But if he did care, I’d tell him this: Regardless of how they feel about what went down with their coach, I have an endless admiration for what he and his teammates have been able to accomplish in these eight games, and I think they’re the ones who deserve all the credit for emerging with a realistic chance to get to the school’s sixth straight bowl.
Because make no mistake: The worst is over. The team heads into this week with a full complement of coaches for game planning and teaching, and for once, everyone’s energy will be focused solely on the upcoming opponent. They need just two wins in the final four to qualify for the postseason, and you don’t have to squint all that hard to see how it might come about — provided you believe we can beat Washington again in our lifetimes.
What we liked: Big time response
Early in the third quarter, WSU trailed 14-7. At that point, it was fair to wonder what direction the game would go — WSU opened the game with a TD, but the next drive ended with an interception and then the following three ended in punts. All the concerns about the play calling had come to the fore as the team sputtered to just 84 yards over its final four drives of the first half.
So, back to the third quarter. BYU opened the half by scoring on an 11-play, 75-yard drive that covered 5:12. It was the kind of drive that makes you think that momentum might be a thing, and that the game might spiral out of control.
Instead, WSU answered back with a 10-play, 69-yard TD drive to
tie the game pull within one, pending the PAT. They faced third down just twice on the drive and converted both of them with Jayden de Laura passes.
BYU scored again. Needing another TD, the offense ... fizzled. Uh oh.
But wait, a 3-and-out??!? A chance at redemption?
Yep. Eleven plays and 76 yards later, WSU was in the end zone again. The 2-point try* was no good, but that’s not the point: Twice the team needed touchdowns, and twice they came up with touchdowns. That speaks well to the strides the offense has made over the past month, and offers hope that offensive coordinator Brian Smith might be fine after all.
*For the record, I didn’t hate the call. It looked like a sound misdirection play, and if it weren’t for a really astute play from the safety — who covered the crossing wide receiver — it would have been an easy conversion. Not everything that doesn’t work out is bad!
“It’s not the outcome we all wanted, but like I said before, I’m very very excited how this team played,” said Calvin Jackson Jr., who had four catches for 52 yards. “We were resilient, we didn’t give up, we fought, and like I said before this BYU team was a really, really good team — they were ranked at one point and they played some good ball today, and so did we.”
Who impressed: Lincoln Victor
Lincoln Victor is the kind of weapon you love to have on your offense. He’s tough as nails, has a little moxie, has great hands, and he’s awfully, awfully slippery when he’s got the ball.
When Victor joined the team before the season as a walk-on, I didn’t think much of it. After a year under new coach Todd Graham at Hawaii, he left for Pullman to follow the staff that recruited him. Besides the fact that he was walking on, he was joining a program that already had about a million receivers — including two on the inside who were locks to take a majority of the snaps.
Then one of those two guys got hurt, and the coaches decided they were OK with rotating receivers more than usual. Victor and Joey Hobert were the beneficiaries, and both have started to flourish.
But it’s really Victor who has caught my eye. Because he was such an afterthought heading into the season, I didn’t know much about him. Turns out he accomplished a lot in high school! And I feel pretty silly for shortchanging a guy who won multiple state championships as a quarterback and was the state AP 4A player of the year. Because he’s really damn good.
What needs work: Tackling
Any time you give up 191 yards to a single running back, there are problems on your defense. WSU struggled mightily with BYU’s Tyler Allgeier, who ended up being the difference in the game.
The biggest struggle was simply tackling, something that has been inconsistent throughout the year.
“I thought we were too high today,” acting head coach Jake Dickert said. “We talked about it all week, you know, (Allgeier) was a very physical back and we knew the quarterback, when he pulled it, it was hard to get him down.
“We just didn’t do our best today as far as wrapping and squeezing and taking angles; I thought we were grabbing and reaching, you know, every once in a while stripping out the ball when you’re the first hitter in, you know, gotta do a little bit better job with that. ... They broke a lot of arm tackles today and that’s credit to them. We’ve just got to go back and make sure we’re cleaning up some of those mistakes.”
Right now, it’s looking like an opponent’s ability to run the ball is the best predictor of what the defense can do from week to week.
Up next! Arizona State Sun Devils
After playing six of their first eight games at home, WSU heads on the road for three of their last four, starting with a trip to Tempe to take on ASU. The Sun Devils are pretty good! Although they’re coming off a loss to Utah that was followed by a bye this past weekend, they’re 5-2 and fighting for the Pac-12 South title.
Beyond that, we know that playing Tempe is usually a bad deal for WSU. Still, this team has surprised us before!
Kickoff is slated for noon PT with the game to be broadcast on FS1.