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The Monday After: Even in a loss to USC, WSU passes the test

The Cougs proved that the first three games of the season were no fluke in a narrow loss to the desperate, talented Trojans.

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Washington State v USC Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

As I woke up Saturday morning, resolving to enjoy my day, I found that I was having a really difficult time moving past my frustration and annoyance.

I was frustrated that the Washington State Cougars didn’t bring a win back from Los Angeles. I was annoyed that poor officiating played such a role in the outcome.* I was annoyed that Mike Leach predictably burned his timeouts in unnecessary situations, preventing any safety net after the final drive. I was super annoyed that Blake Mazza’s final kick never got a chance because of a blown blocking assignment that USC had scouted. I was super, duper annoyed that the Cougs botched the most routine play in football — in this particular game, of all games — which ultimately led to their demise against what I’m fairly certain will turn out to be the best team in the Pac-12 South.

What a missed opportunity.

*No, I’m not blaming the refs. Yes, I’m pissed that Clay Helton was clearly in the ears of the referees at some point before kickoff, given the multiple penalties on the defensive line shifts and the illegal formation penalty on Kyle Sweet’s snap. Yes, I’m pissed that the dirtiest player in the Pac-12 got away scot-free with as blatant a targeting hit as you’ll ever see. Yes, I’m pissed that USC got away with a defensive hold that clearly aided the blocked kick. Being super pissed about how the game was officiated while also saying WSU didn’t lose because of the officiating is a thing that is possible. As one commenter said postgame: “Look, they could’ve won that game in spite of the officiating. But the point remains that they shouldn’t have to. And yet here we are.”

But I’ve always tried to keep this column forward looking. And while I hate the “if you’d told me” game that we often try to play after a disappointing result by a team that’s still in pretty good shape overall, we can go ahead and do that here: the reality is that WSU still is 3-1, which was the best case scenario predicted by any of our authors heading into the season. That doesn’t make it any less frustrating and annoying that they missed a spectacular chance to move to 4-0, but it’s also true they’re still halfway to a fourth consecutive bowl game and still look every bit the part of a team that will win at least six games.

That last part wasn’t a foregone conclusion going into Friday. Convincing wins over the Wyoming Cowboys, San Jose State Spartans and Eastern Washington Eagles don’t hold as much weight as going toe-to-toe with the USC Trojans in the famed Coliseum. And while the Trojans certainly had not looked great in the preceding two weeks, this was a team predicted to win the South division that is starting a true freshman quarterback. The Trojans won 21 games the last two seasons, and they began the year ranked 15th.

That they put up a fight at home with their season sort of in the balance was not surprising. That WSU nearly walked away with a victory against all that talent and motivation tells us a lot about the Cougars.

I really didn’t think they were going to go to Los Angeles and lay an egg, but that was always a possibility. Instead, they scrapped with USC until the very end, only truly undone by special teams mistakes. One could make a rather convincing argument that WSU, on balance, was the better team. And that means that with a third of the season now gone, I think we can safely say that the doom and gloom scenarios that were predicted by some (such as your truly) before the season are simply off the table now.

Obviously it’s a team effort to get this point, but I think three guys deserve some extra recognition for that.

First, and foremost, Mike Leach. Whatever you think of his political leanings, or the way he treats reporters, or the way he tried very hard to leave for the Tennessee Volunteers last offseason, the fact remains that he is one hell of a college football coach. He gets painted by the public at large as a quirky offensive mastermind, but those of us who have watched the transformation of the program the last seven years know that he’s so much more than that. The mental toughness, the expectation of greatness ... these are all things that are established by the head coach.

As my friend Jesse Cassino was fond of saying in the offseason: If WSU can get to a bowl game in a “rebuilding” year — if that’s now the floor — that’s a pretty incredible accomplishment that maybe says more about the overall health of the program than the 26 wins piled up the last three seasons. So while I don’t think I’d ever want to be friends with Mike Leach, I’m very, very glad he coaches my favorite football team.

Second, Tracy Claeys deserves a ton of credit for his work with the defense. After the improvements under Alex Grinch, it was natural to wonder what would happen when he left, and while we all hoped that Claeys would be able to replicate his past successes, he faced a lot of personnel challenges in his first year. He’s impressed me a ton with his ability to adapt to the talent on hand, keeping the unit afloat by refusing to try and shove a square peg into a round hole. The look and style of the defense will evolve over the next couple of years into something more closely resembling what he prefers, but for now, that unit looks an awful lot like it did the last couple of years. And that’s probably not as easy for a coach to do when he’s new to the program as it seems it could be.

And then ... there’s the Mississippi Mustache. We’ll get into him more in the next section, but I feel confident saying that his play is the primary reason the trajectory of the season is what it is.

As I sit here on Monday, I’m a lot less irritated than I was on Saturday. I fact, I’m excited. Yes, Friday was an opportunity lost. But there are eight more opportunities in front of the Cougs to continue to exceed most everyone’s expectations.

Who Impressed

I think we can agree that Garnder Minshew II has, indeed, made the Air Raid fun again. Do you remember who Leach said his new quarterback reminded him of?

Brett Favre ...

... and Jim McMahon:

NCAA Football: San Jose State at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Minshew is on pace to throw for more than 4,600 yards and 33 touchdowns in the regular season. That a bit better than your routine Air Raid numbers, slightly ahead, pace wise, of Luke Falk’s sophomore and junior seasons. Good, but not 2014 Connor Halliday-type numbers.

That it feels like what he’s doing is so remarkable is attributable, I think, to three things: One, the direct contrast to last year’s “constipation” in what was Falk’s worst season; two, the fact that there was a lot of skepticism about what he’d be able to do in his first year in the offense; and, three, the confidence and swagger Minshew brings to the field that seems to permeate the entire offense (which also is a direct contrast to Falk).

This year is underscoring for me the extreme levels to which the Air Raid is driven by the QB. I mean, we know that’s true, given that the QB is going to throw it 75 percent of the time, but it’s like ... man, the quarterback really is everything for Leach’s teams — not just in terms of the throws or checks or whatever, but the attitude. That much has become clear over the past seven years, watching the offense move from beta Air Raid (Tuel/Halliday), to Halliday 1.0 then 2.0, to Falk 1.0, to malware Falk, and finally to Minshew. The quarterback is the Air Raid in every way, and WSU’s offense is Gardner Minshew, mustache and all.

That’s turned out to be a hell of a thing. Before the season I thought there was a chance that he was the perfect guy at the perfect time for WSU in the wake of an offseason of upheaval, and it sure looks like that’s true.

But swagger only gets you so far if you can’t run the offense, and Minshew has been masterful in his first season. The plays above standout for their highlight quality, but it’s the subtle things he does things with his progressions in his first year (that his predecessor struggled to do in his fourth) that really impress. Teams can’t simply flood the patterns with a seven- or eight-man zone — he’ll find the gap and pick them apart (with an assist from a rebuilt, young offensive line that has been very good). And teams that want to man up? He’ll find the good matchup and let his awesome receiver go make a play on the ball.

Some might say this is evidence that anyone can produce in the Air Raid, given that Minshew’s performing better than he ever did with the East Carolina Pirates:

Instead, I’d argue this is just a matter of a quarterback finding his fit — not every quarterback is right for every system, and not every system is right for every quarterback. As Vince Grippi mentioned on the CougCenter Hour podcast last week, Minshew has said the ECU offense was a one-read offense. I think it’s pretty obvious that’s a big waste of Minshew’s skill set.

Minshew has found a home in the Air Raid. And it’s a shame we only get him for one season.

Honorable Mention: Easop Winston, Jamire Calvin, and Dezmon Patmon, who each had monster games; Peyton Pelluer, who was everywhere on the field (12 tackles); the offensive line, which kept Minshew clean virtually all night.

What Needs Work

Mike Leach has now employed three men as his special teams coordinator. In that time, special teams have sucked pretty much every year.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

So instead of harping on how dumb the short kicks were, or how inexcusable it is to have a missed blocking assignment on a potentially game-tying field goal ...

Actually, nah, let’s talk about the whiff on the game-tying field goal.

Take it away, Antonio Morales at The Athletic:

“The kids knew exactly what to do. Our last team meeting, we showed them,” head coach Clay Helton said. “We showed the gap that would be open.”

So when Trojans linebacker Cameron Smith saw the Cougars’ guard overset on an earlier field-goal attempt, he knew this would be the ideal time to make the call.

“I saw their guard lunging and falling,” Smith said. “So I knew if we ran it right, it was going to work perfectly.” ...

“We worked on it all week,” said offensive lineman Austin Jackson, who also is on the field-goal block unit. “We got into the same position. I was supposed to mug the tackle. I just knew as soon as it lined up it was going to happen. The B gap went wide open and Jay Tufele did his thing. He’s great.”

This wasn’t just an unfortunate physical failure, the likes of which just sometimes happen. This was a coaching failure. Which makes me wonder: If the special teams are bad every year, and the only thing they have in common is that Mike Leach is the head coach ... is this something we can actually trace back to him?

We can’t answer that. But it’s definitely a question worth asking.

Dishonorable Mention: We heard before the season that Tracy Claeys was concerned about the secondary; I guess now we know why. The good news? WSU won’t face another receiver corps that athletically talented from top to bottom the rest of the season.

Up Next!

Washington v Utah Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

Did you guys know that the Utah Utes are a dark horse candidate to win the Pac-12 South? No really! It’s true ... just like every other season they’ve been in the conference!

And just like the other seven seasons, they probably won’t win the South this year, either — not with yet another anemic offense. Since 2011, when the Utes joined the Pac-12, they have yet to finish in the top 50 in offense by S&P+. This year, they’ve taken it to the extreme, currently sitting at 115th. That’s worse than Wyoming (106th), but better than San Jose State (122nd).

You read that correctly.

However, they also have the best defense in the country, if you believe S&P+. Better than Alabama, Clemson, Washington, etc.

The Cougs have won three straight against the Utes, including last season’s defense-dominated 33-25 decision. Is the win streak a function of randomness, or is the Air Raid kryptonite to Kyle Whittingham? I tend to think it’s more of the latter — the Utes seem to build their defense around stout run stopping rather than speed, and it sure seems like they’re just not well equipped to keep up with an extreme spread offense.

It also doesn’t hurt that the Utes are overrated, like, every season.

WSU has shown a lot of potential in these first four weeks. For them to stay on track for what it seems like they’re capable of, this is a game they should win. If they don’t, they’re suddenly 3-2 overall and 0-2 in the Pac-12, and whether they can get to six wins and another bowl game would seem to be up for debate once again. Get this one, though, and only the Oregon State Beavers would be standing between the Cougs and five wins in their first six.

Kickoff for homecoming is at 3 p.m. PT. The game will be broadcast on Pac-12 Network.