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The Monday After: Arizona might be good, you guys

The defense got run over, but that probably says more about the Wildcats than it does about the Cougs.

Washington State v Arizona Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

This will shock you to learn, so I hope you’re sitting down — or, at least, holding onto something sturdy. I wrote something on the internet that turned out to be incorrect. No, really ... this is a thing that happened. Turns out, that’s an inherent hazard of this exercise when you’re writing about a team, week-to-week, with incomplete data.

Hoooooooo boy, do we have another data point now.

The Washington State Cougars got whipped by the Arizona Wildcats in a manner I didn’t foresee, and the funny thing is that the 51 points given up by the defense isn’t even close to the top of my list of concerns. That’s partially because WSU’s fifth-year senior record-setting QB got benched for ineffective play for the second time this season, and — for the second time — the backup looked pretty danged good in relief.

We’ll get to the QB thing in another post that will go up soon; since I wrote about the defense last week, let’s revisit that Speed D, and address whether it’s broken or exposed or whatever.

I think it’s a pretty safe conclusion that the defense isn’t as good as its heretofore lofty ranking suggested; however, I think what we saw on Saturday was a bit of an aberration that I’m choosing not to worry a ton about going forward.

(Feel free to also keep in mind that I’m the guy who thought we could handle Khalil Tate, so maybe what I’m about to write has about as much value as ... well ... the last thing I wrote. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯)

Saturday wasn’t an aberration in the way that Cal was; that game just felt wacky and weird and largely unlucky, at least to me, and there was absolutely nothing wacky or weird or unlucky about what the Wildcats did. The Cougs just got flat whipped on defense, truly the first time that’s happened all season.

This is Jason Smith. He went to Arizona, and he is my principal. He had a lot more fun at the game on Saturday than our fans did, and I’d like to formally apologize to him and all Arizona fans for doubting Khalil Tate.

If your first instinct is to use that to discredit everything the defense did over the previous eight weeks, I think you’re doing a disservice both to what the Speed D has accomplished and to what Arizona’s got going. This isn’t the first true spread offense we’ve faced this season. This isn’t the first dual-threat quarterback we’ve faced this season. This is the first offense we faced where the guy taking snaps has won the Pac-12 offensive player of the week four times in a row.

I’m a week late on the bandwagon, but it’s now clear that Tate really is that special. Every bit of objective evidence we have at our disposal tells us the WSU defense is superior to the ones at Colorado, UCLA and Cal, which Tate and Co. also shredded, and it made no practical difference — if anything, WSU was worse. That’s amazing, and it really is all about Tate: RichRod’s been running the same offense for two decades, and it has produced nothing even remotely resembling these results since he had Pat White back at West Virginia.

If you’re fan of football, it really is a ton of fun to watch (when it’s not happening to your team, of course). It reminds me so much of what Oregon had with Marcus Mariota. When a team has to account for the quarterback attacking all parts of the field with his arm and legs it puts stress on so many points of your defense, both horizontally and vertically, that if one guy blows his assignment, it’s off to the races.

That’s bad news for a WSU unit, that — while athletic and enthusiastic — is still young in spots. And at some point, if you’re trotting out a pair of freshman middle linebackers, and you’re walking your safeties up into the box a lot ... someone’s not going to be assignment perfect. More than once. And Tate and Co. make you pay for it pretty much every time it happens, which really, really sucks.

It seemed to me this was one of those times when Mike Leach’s “they were trying too hard” trope actually rings true. That’s what the pressure of a dynamic offense such as this does to players: They think they have to do just a little bit more to make even the routine plays, and as soon as you start thinking like that, they’ve got you out of position, and when they’ve got you out of position ... they’ve got you.

Although I’m obviously not a coach, it seems to me there’s probably something to be said for Alex Grinch’s scheme having a tough time with this kind of matchup. There’s a reason “we always struggle with mobile quarterbacks” is a thing with our fans. But I think it’s probably time to just amend it to “we always struggle with really good mobile quarterbacks,” which stinks, but you know what? So does pretty much everyone else! We just maybe do a little worse with it, which, you know ... if we get the results we had the first eight games of the season, I’m not going to spend too much time worrying about it.

Especially when you look at the rest of the schedule and there isn’t another quarterback on there who even remotely resembles Tate. My friend Kyle Sherwood* is fond of saying, “Our defense is awesome as long as it’s facing a bad quarterback,” and I’m fond of saying back, “Well, there are a lot of bad quarterbacks in college football, so if you can do that, you’re like 80 percent of the way to where you want to go.”

*By the way, when you get done listening to The CougCenter Hour, go subscribe to the Cougar Football Saturdaycast. It’s fun!

In the final three games, WSU faces a bad quarterback, a so-so quarterback, and a quarterback who everyone is finally realizing probably wasn’t nearly as good as he appeared when John Ross was running past everyone. There are no more Khalil Tates on the schedule ... well, at least, not at the moment. And I’d be pretty OK with getting another shot at him, even if the possibility of another 50-burger is squarely on the table.

What We Liked

NCAA Football: Washington State at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

No, they weren’t perfect, but the young receivers on the outside are starting to finally deliver on their promise as a unit.

Dezmon Patmon (above) built on his strong performance against Colorado with five more catches for 72 yards, including a 30-yarder. Tay Martin, who finally took all of CJ Dimry’s snaps, caught three balls for 67 yards and a pair of TDs. One was a nice back shoulder fade at the goal line:

And the other was the most electric catch-and-run of the night:

Yeah, he dropped a pass earlier. He’s still inconsistent. But man, his talent is absolutely tantalizing.

Oh, and Isaiah Johnson-Mack caught all eight of his targets for 69 yards. Throw in 136 yards on 11 catches (13 targets) to Tavares Martin Jr., and it all adds up to 27 catches for 344 yards and three TDs for the outside receivers.

Pretty great showing from these guys ... when they get the ball.

Honorable mention: The uni combo was fantastic. Let’s see that one again, for sure.

Who Impressed

Washington State v Arizona Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

Two times now, Tyler Hilinski has been called on to unconstipate the offense. And for the second time, he did just that, rallying the Cougs from a 20-7 deficit late in the second half to a 27-23 lead midway through the third quarter.

Of course, he couldn’t quite see it through to the end, and everyone has their own thoughts about that. But personally? I think 500 yards passing and four total touchdowns in relief is a hell of an accomplishment, interceptions be damned, since the only reason the game was even competitive for a stretch was because of Hilinski. And as we’ve discussed ad nauseam on another thread, that really should have been enough offense to win the game — or at least be close — even with the interceptions.

Coming off the bench as a quarterback is hard enough; coming off the bench to be thrown into a bad situation with the expectation that you will do something the starting, fifth-year, record-setting quarterback couldn’t do is asking an awful lot. That Hilinski has been able to do that twice now is a testament to his preparation and focus.

Very impressive.

What Needs Work

Yet another special teams gaffe that could have cost the Cougs in a closer game. After Hilinski pulled WSU within six points with 10 seconds to go in the first half, all the Cougs had to do was not screw up the kickoff.

That was too much to ask. Erik Powell squibbed it, but it sure looked like the coverage team wasn’t anticipating a squib. As a result, the 45-yard return gave the Wildcats a shot at a 57-yard field goal with one second left, which of course they hit.

Special teams certainly weren’t the reason for the loss, but they probably will be at some point. Prepare yourselves.

Up Next!

Stanford comes to Pullman for Senior Day — and it’s actually a day game! Kickoff is slated for 12:30 p.m. on Big FOX.

It’s actually debatable which performance from last week was worse: WSU’s three-TD loss to Arizona, or Stanford’s miracle escape from Corvallis. Oregon State had the game all but won until Ryan Nall fumbled with just a couple of minutes remaining as the Beavers were trying to run out the clock. Keller Chryst hit an incredible (incredibly lucky?) throw on a 4th-and-10 that kept the game winning drive alive. It was the kind of magic act even Houdini would admire.

The Cardinal aren’t playing their best football right now, and that has a lot to do with the physical status of their all-world running back Bryce Love. He missed the game against the Beavers, and David Shaw said he’ll probably be a game-time decision this weekend.

I don’t really believe that; I presume he’ll play. Still, the Cardinal aren’t exactly on a roll at the moment, and the Cougs have been incredible at home. Let’s see if those factors — plus a motivated Luke Falk — can get WSU back in the win column.