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WASHINGTON ST V UTAH Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

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The Monday After: In search of some mental fortitude

Soft isn’t a word that we throw around these parts very often, but it’s hard to escape right now.

I stopped playing football after my junior year of high school, and to be honest, “playing football” is probably generous when used to describe what it was that I was doing out there.

I started one varsity game in my life as an undersized and too slow offensive lineman on one of the worst large-school teams in the state — and only because the guy I was backing up had quit the team in protest of a Saturday early-morning practice after one of our regular butt kickings. In that one start, I got whipped so badly and so repeatedly that I was benched at halftime in favor of a freshman. By the time my senior year rolled around, I decided I’d just rather focus on becoming a sports writer.*

*Which I did, becoming the sports editor of the school newspaper. After writing a semi-critical story about the football team’s prospects, I got yelled at in the hall by our head coach, a 300-pound former NFL defensive lineman, for — you’ll never believe this! — being too negative and not doing my part to support the team. Some things never change!

After that, my capacity as a reporter for The Daily Evergreen also meant that I spent a lot of time around players, which showed me what a different animal college football was. It also made clear to me that they weren’t professionals, no matter how much we look at them that way.

It is with this context in mind that I’ll rarely call out players in public for being soft or not mentally tough, or whatever. Being a Pac-12-level football player inherently means you have a greater level of physical and mental toughness than I do, so I try to stay measured with my critiques on that front. (I’m sure someone, somewhere can find some receipts of a time when I didn’t stick to that during a moment of frustration, but whatever.)

After Saturday night, though, I don’t really have any reservations about saying this current iteration of the Washington State Cougars is a little bit soft in the context of their predecessors — mostly because the coach did it first, but also partly because, after the last five-plus quarters of football, it’s pretty plain for everyone to see that this team lacks a certain level of mental fortitude necessary to be successful at the level we’d all like.

What’s most startling is something Leach said in there that’s getting overlooked in all the hubbub about his assessment that they are “fat, dumb, happy, and entitled” — emphasis mine:

You saw a pretty tough football team play a pretty soft football team. It’s difficult to say how tough Utah is, because they had token resistance on both sides of the ball from us. We’re very soft. We get a lot of good press, we like to read it a lot, we like to pat ourselves on the back. And if we get any resistance, we fold. And what’s amazing is most of these guys were on the same team last year that was a tough team. … And we’ve got nearly the same guys and they’re not tough.

It’s hard to imagine such a dramatic change could come about after simply losing a handful of seniors, but here we are. And what makes it even more maddening is that one of the things Leach talked about last year is how much the players hold each other accountable — a culture had been instilled, and it appeared that it would be self sustaining.

I mean, if the program wasn’t going to fall apart after January 2018, it had to be damn near impossible for it to ever fall apart under Leach, right?

I’m not suggesting that it’s currently falling apart. I think it’s entirely doable for things to get back on track, and I think that’s actually probably what Leach was alluding to with his comment — you guys have been here, you’ve done this, that’s who you actually are, and we’re going to bring that out again, one way or another. But it doesn’t make it any less jarring to watch the team roll over. (Against someone other than the Washington Huskies, anyway.) Probably the last time we really saw that was at Cal in 2017. Before that? Probably Portland State 2015.

We can probably debate whether another game fits in there, but that’s beside the actual point, which is simply that it’s been a rare occurrence over the last five years.

For it to happen two games in a row?

That sounds alarm bells. Hence Leach’s comments.

(It’s also probably not coincidence that it comes in direct contrast to the team we just lost to, another program that (a) prides itself on toughness, (b) we’ve beaten regularly, and (c) is a peer in terms of resources and recruiting competition. I’m guessing that wasn’t far from Leach’s mind.)

The sudden turn in this program from “amazingly tough” to “just a little soft” has got me flummoxed. I’m still not sure what to make of this team on the whole, even though I think we know a few things.

We know the defense is bad. The Utah Utes could have put up 50 points if they felt like they needed to, but it seemed pretty clear to me that they dialed it back in the third quarter with conservative play calls to eat up clock and make sure to minimize the opportunities the WSU offense had to come back on them (as it has twice in the past four games between these teams).

We know the team as a whole is a little more fragile. There’s a pretty clear leadership vacuum on both sides of the ball right now. From the outside, it sure looks like Max Borghi is trying to step into that role on offense, but I don’t know how much difference that can make — he’s still just a sophomore, and unless he’s a sophomore quarterback, I think what he does and says can only go so far. It’s probably incumbent on players like Anthony Gordon and Liam Ryan to step up.

The defense, meanwhile, is just a rudderless ship lacking confidence in everything it’s trying to do — I miss the days of guys flying around and hitting opponents for fun. Every move these guys make is so tentative, and I’m not sure who can be called on to step up. Tracy Claeys is trying all kinds of mixing and matching with personnel in the front and back, and when that takes place, there’s no voice that can really step up. That leaves the linebackers. Justus Rogers has simply played poorly, ceding more and more regular time to a true freshman; Jahad Woods is on the field the most and has the most equity in the program, but he just doesn’t seem like that kind of leader. It’s obvious and has been lamented often to the point that it’s becoming cliche, but man, we really miss Jalen Thompson on so many levels.

We know Anthony Gordon is not actually superhuman. Despite what he’s done, he’s not immune to the struggles of a quarterback who has made just five starts and faced his first real, legitimate defense — on the road, no less. He’s also not immune to the pressure that can be put on a QB when he starts to feel like he has to play outside the system to catch up when the team falls behind, which is exactly what his second interception was.

But it’s hard to know what, exactly, all of this means for their ability to win games going forward. It’s hard for me not to think of 2015, when, after four games, the team was 2-2 with losses to Portland State and ranked Cal on the road. It led me to write this, which of course turned out to be hilariously wrong, but it shows how difficult it can be to put your finger on a team when they only play once a week, 12 times a year, and each game is its own little snowflake.

In light of this particular game, I guess how you feel depends to some degree how good you think Utah actually is, and how correctable you think each of the things above are. If Utah hadn’t just lost to USC, we might be inclined to write it off to just getting beaten by a good team; or, if we hadn’t UCLA’d ourselves, we might be inclined to write it off as a tough game in a tough environment.

But those two things did happen, and we got walloped by Utah, so now we wonder all sorts of other things. With the season nearly half over and four tough road games ahead, I can still talk myself into both eight wins and missing a bowl altogether. I think six or seven wins is most likely, as I did after last week’s game, but the volatility at play going forward is legitimate.

Maybe this is just destined to be one of those WILD RIDE!!! seasons all the Tech fans warned us about when we hired Leach. Personally, I’d prefer not to hang on for dear life for the next two months, but it’s 1000% better than a lot of other possibilities that involve having no chance at a bowl game at all.

What We Liked: Special Teams

Washington State v Colorado
No, this isn’t from Saturday’s game, but it’s the best picture I’ve got.
Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

A week after getting torched by UCLA for a pair of return touchdowns, special teams returned to what we’ve come to expect with Matt Brock at the helm:

  • Blake Mazza, above, hit both his field goals — including a career-long 51-yarder;
  • Oscar Draguicevich averaged more than 45 yards on his punts, including one inside the 20;
  • Travell Harris averaged 24 yards on his kickoff returns and looks more and more like a guy who’s going to pop one.

In a game full of crap, this was at least not crap.

Who Impressed: Max Borghi

UCLA v Washington State
Apparently, 17 touches was not enough for either of the photo services to which we subscribe to get us a photo of Max against Utah. Alas.
Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

We have to choose someone, so let’s go with the guy who when he touches the ball, good things almost inevitably happen. In an offense full of explosive players, Borghi is proving to be the most explosive of them all, and maybe just as good as that, he simply rarely takes a negative play.

There were more than a few people in our postgame thread clamoring for Borghi to get more touches, but man — 17 is already quite a few in this offense. Maybe he could have gotten a couple more down near the goal line? But Utah was pretty clearly putting a bunch of guys in the box and daring WSU to beat them through the air down there, and the Cougs’ biggest problem was that they simply couldn’t win one-on-one.

And as I said in that postgame thread: Maybe there were more opportunities to run the ball, but it’s also a possibility that the success Borghi had was tied to getting him carries in favorable situations — and that continuing to force feed him for the sake of doing it would have had diminishing returns. We just don’t know.

There’s also an opportunity cost to giving Borghi the ball; whenever you do that, you’re not pushing it downfield to a receiver, which is what gives you the best chance to pick up a bunch of yards. The receivers weren’t doing a great job, and neither was Gordon, but you just can’t abandon who you are and what you’re trying to do, given how many examples we have of situations where our offense finally popped and pulled out a win in the end.

For what it’s worth, Leach running backs at WSU have only gone over 20 touches in a game a handful of times — almost all of them by James Williams. Maybe it would have been appropriate to get Borghi a few more in this one. But I don’t know that I believe it’s essential in any particular game going forward to get him more than what he got in this game; Williams was just a shade under 16 touches per game last year, which seems like a reasonable expectation for Borghi.

What Needs Work: Fan confidence

NCAA Football: Northern Colorado at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Y’all. We’re Washington State. Not every season is going to have 11 wins. Not every season is even going to end with a bowl game. And yet, we’re 3-2 with the postseason still very much in reach.

I’m not saying you should feel great about these last two games, but man:

Up Next! B-Y-E

UCLA v Washington State Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

On a personal level, I think it sucks that I have to take a week off from Cougar Football Saturday. But for the team, the bye probably comes at a great time. (Does a bye ever not come at a great time?)

I don’t know if major personnel changes on defense are possible, but the bye week at least gives a chance for a shakeup without the total disruption that can lead to miscommunications. It might be a nice time for, say, a true freshman to take over a certain spot at linebacker where the production has been extremely subpar.

I also hope that the bye allows Brandon Arconado to get healthy. We need him back.

Most of all, I hope it allows for the team to do a bit of a mental reset as to who they are and what they can accomplish. I think our worst fear is that the UCLA game broke something, but if Leach’s history is any indication, the Cougs will come out fighting against Arizona State in two weeks.

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