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The Monday After: Not mad, just bummed

It’s not hard to figure out why WSU’s game against Oregon went sideways, but it still stinks to miss such a great opportunity.

Cam Ward was spectacular on Saturday against Oregon.
| Jack Ellis/CougCenter

I know a lot of people were pretty mad after Washington State coughed up a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter to lose to Oregon. I know That Phrase was thrown around a bunch. While I won’t begrudge any fan their feelings, I’ll also say that I just couldn’t work up that kind of emotion.

If ever there was an avatar for how I was feeling after a game, it would be Cam Ward’s reaction to the pick six that sealed his team’s demise:

For real ... it me:

I just am so bummed that the Cougs couldn’t close the deal against an opponent that is pretty obviously good. It would have been another amazing feather in this team’s cap and a continuance of the Jake Dickert honeymoon to pick up WSU’s second top-20 win and vault into the AP Top 25.

But, if we’re being honest, that game was always hanging on by a thread. Oregon marched up and down the field all day, and not methodically — through three quarters, the Ducks piled up 483 total yards on 8.6 yards per play against a defense that hadn’t yet allowed more than 401 yards in an entire game, and had only allowed greater than 5 yards per play once. A team with the kind of production Oregon had would be expected to be sitting on something like 35 points, not 15.

The reason they didn’t have more points was because of WSU’s tremendous fortitude in the red zone. It wasn’t just ineptitude by the Ducks — WSU was making plays inside the 10. Oregon tried everything it could to find some space down there, but the Cougars have shown time and again this season that they like it when the game takes place “in a phone booth,” as Dickert loves to say, and Oregon just could not find any room to operate.

But it was never sustainable that Oregon was going to score zero TDs in the red zone if WSU was going to continue to allow the Ducks to visit that part of the field with regularity. If WSU couldn’t stop Oregon from getting inside the 20, it was going to give up touchdowns eventually. That two of Oregon’s three red zone TDs came in the fourth quarter — after the Cougars had been chasing the Ducks all day — surely is not coincidental.

We’ve seen games where the Cougs fall apart, where I might have to begrudgingly accept the use of That Phrase* given the amazing confluence of incompetence required to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. This was not that. It wasn’t even close to that. This was a game where Oregon did not require massive help from WSU to pull it off, and it’s pretty easy to figure out how and why it happened.

*Bad, late losses happen to everyone. Knock it off.

WSU has really leaned on its defense this year, and for the first time, the defense couldn’t carry the Cougars to victory — even as the offense finally came to life. And to explain that, I think it’s really just as simple as (A) being unable to get to Bo Nix, and (B) being unable to generate more than one turnover.

This unit has thrived on dialing up big, negative-yardage plays, and they didn’t get any in this one: Seven tackles for loss, but only for negative 16 yards — and no sacks. Only once — with a blitz — did the Cougs even get close to Nix, but he unloaded the ball before he could take a loss. I’m fond of saying that “sacks are a quarterback stat,” and this game was a perfect example: WSU’s line had an extremely difficult time getting through Oregon’s wall, but Nix didn’t give them any opportunities to get any hustle sacks, either. With the notable exception of one play, it was a masterclass in QB efficiency, surely something that has rarely been said about Nix. But he earned the high praise on Saturday.

Without being able to put the Ducks significantly behind the chains — and without shortening drives with takeaways — it put tremendous pressure on the Cougars’ secondary. And they cracked repeatedly, particularly over the middle of the field, where WSU’s safety play was exposed. (And not for the first time, considering all of Wisconsin’s third-and-long conversions.)

Fans love to talk about blueprints for beating teams, but honestly: Will anyone else be able to stifle the pass rush like this? It’s hard to imagine, but Oregon State, Washington, and Utah all are allowing fewer than one sack a game. That’s something to keep an eye on heading into those matchups, but that also leaves five other games against teams that are generally unable to prevent pressure — including Cal, which has given up 12 sacks already. Will anyone else be able to play virtually mistake-free football? Highly doubtful. There’s really no reason to think the Cougs won’t be able to get back to the formula that proved so successful in non-conference play.

They also shouldn’t have to carry the same load going forward: While the offense is still not without its flaws, it also showed it can score against a defense that is at least pretty decent. The vaunted Coug Raid, which had sputtered so badly at times, finally had a rhythm for most of the game. Improvement isn’t necessarily linear, but it sort of has been for the offense, and it’s easy to see it getting even better.

I sure would have loved to see what the offense might have done if Oregon hadn’t guessed right on that screen and housed an interception. But, as it was, I could only drop my head and let out a big sigh, because sometimes you just get beat. Which is a bummer, but not something to worth getting mad about, at least to me.

In the end, sitting at 3-1 after having played two top-20 opponents just isn’t something I can complain about. The Cougs were outplayed by most metrics in those two games, but they figured out a way to come away with a win in one of them. Everyone wants to be greedy, and they could have won both, but they also could have lost both, which means 1-1 in those two is probably an outcome we should be satisfied with, particularly since they didn’t blow either of the other two games.

It’s also worth remembering this: For schools like WSU, football seasons aren’t made in games against Oregon — they’re made in games like Cal this weekend.

What we liked: Clever play calling

Robert Ferrel scored his first TD as a Coug on a really nifty play design.
Jack Ellis/CougCenter

One of the things I heard fans repeatedly lament over the course of Mike Leach’s seven years in charge was that the playbook lacked creativity. Like most criticisms, I didn’t think things were ever as vanilla as a lot of people believed — there are a lot of creative adjustments within his Air Raid that go unnoticed to the untrained eye — but I also understood where people were coming from, particularly when the Air Raid looked bad. It could be super frustrating and feel like the team was just banging its head against a wall.

Enter new offensive coordinator Eric Morris, who is becoming an absolutely delightful breath of fresh air from a scheme standpoint.

I’m not skilled enough with Xs and Os to know exactly what’s going on or how things work (I’ll leave that to Jesse Cassino), but I also watch enough football to sit up and go WHOA! when I see something is different. Case in point:

It sure seemed like WSU was able to generate points through pure scheme, and that’s what you want out of an offensive coordinator.

Who impressed: Cam Ward

Cam Ward was spectacular.
Jack Ellis/CougCenter

Now we see what all the fuss is about!

Ward went 37 of 48 for 375 yards and three total TDs, working magic all afternoon for the Cougars. He wasn’t just in a groove throwing the ball; he was making plays happen in all sorts of different ways.

I’d try to describe these, but that would be a waste of words when video can tell the story so much better:

I couldn’t quickly find a highlight of maybe his most impressive play: Quickly getting rid of the ball in the middle of a trick play that Oregon had absolutely blown up. If not for a missed block by the caravan of offensive linemen out in front of the runner, that play might have gone for 6 when it just as easily could have been a disaster.

Sure, he threw two interceptions. One wasn’t even an interception (and if it was, it wasn’t his fault) and the other one wasn’t his fault, either (you can’t expect a QB to read a dropping lineman on a wide receiver screen).

I’ve felt for a while like this sort of thing was coming. It wasn’t just the reputation, it was the way he carried himself on the field — there’s just something about Ward’s demeanor that inspired confidence in me. Like someone who’s processing and diagnosing and fine tuning until the engine is ready to roar.

I think he’s just getting revved up.

What needs work: Positions of weakness

There were a lot of open catches like this one.
Jack Ellis/CougCenter

Opposing coaches are going to do whatever they can to exploit weaknesses, and there are a couple that have become a little glaring over the first third of the season.

Defensively, safety is an issue. Sam Lockett III is a great story, having come from G-Prep in Spokane via junior college, but the speed of Oregon’s wideouts seemed to stretch his ability on Saturday. I’m not sure what can be done there, because the coaching staff obviously knows his limitations, and they’re rolling with him anyway. They’ve got a week to figure it out before they have to try and contend with USC’s athletes.

Offensively, the line is maybe not as problematic as we feared, but still pretty problematic. For the second week in a row, Ward was under duress for significant portions of the game. Right tackle seems to be a particular weak spot, where Ma’ake Fifita has struggled with the speed of some edge rushers. I was a huge Fifita fan when he was signed; the athleticism was evident when he signed at a lithe 240 pounds. He’s now 305, and moving is a little bit of a struggle at times. I know the coaching staff loves him — maybe it’s going to just come down to technique — and it’s not like there are other options. But, again, it’s got to get figured out or the offense isn’t going to come close to its ceiling.

Up next! California Golden Bears

You can never unsee Oski.
Photo by Brian Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Great. It’s Cal week. Someone get my barf bag.

As has been detailed ad nauseam, this matchup is famous for weird crap. I can only imagine what the football gods have dialed up for us this week.

Cal, by the way, comes into the game also 3-1, narrowly losing to Notre Dame and having just blown up Arizona to the tune of 49-31, averaging 9 yards per play behind nearly 300 rushing yards by freshman Jaydn Ott. Not nearly 300 yards for the season — nearly 300 yards (274, actually) in that one game! This would seem to portend well for the Cougs, who have been stout against non-Oregon rushing attacks, but ...

It’s Cal. Anything can happen.

Kickoff is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. from Martin Stadium/Gesa Field, with the broadcast slated for Pac-12 Network.

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