All season, we’ve been wondering when it was going to happen — holding our breath, waiting for it, dreading its seemingly inevitable appearance ... because it always appears.
The Face Plant.
It’s not a phenomenon unique to the Washington State Cougars; it’s endemic to college football in general, the result of a game being played by 18- to 23-year-old young men whose brains are still reaching their fully developed state.
The difference, though, when it comes to WSU is that the Cougs generally haven’t had the kind of talent over the years that allows a team to win even when they’re not at their most focused. When it goes bad ... it goes baaaaaad.
As the Cougs rolled deeper and deeper into this season, soaring higher and higher in the rankings, everyone — from fans to prognosticators alike — just kept looking for the The Face Plant. Because it was going to show up at some point. It always does.
Coming off a physical battle with the Utah Utes, the week six matchup with the Oregon State Beavers in Corvallis was supposed to be a potential trouble spot. Then the GameDay stuff was supposed to be too big of a distraction against the Oregon Ducks. Then they were supposed to be too emotionally drained from the GameDay high to withstand the Stanford Cardinal. Then bad weather and Cal Things were supposed to create a problem. Then going on the road to Folsom Field to face a desperate Colorado Buffaloes team getting its best player back was supposed to be the spot.
Win. Win. Win. Win. Win. Average margin of victory: Nearly two touchdowns.
This past weekend was just the latest “scary” spot. The Arizona Wildcats were bye rested, and Khalil Tate was finally fully healthy, and their defense was better than it has been, and J.J. Taylor is a load, and the stadium was probably going to be half empty, and it was going to be cold, and ...
Win by 41.
I mean, you guys: I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I think The Face Plant might not be coming.
Week after week, the Cougars just keep showing up, regardless of the circumstances. They certainly haven’t played at their peak every game — the pros don’t even do that — but they’ve avoided the total no show, and that’s given them a chance to keep winning, even when weirdness happens (like OSU throwing the entire playbook at them, or fumbling a sure touchdown out of the back of the end zone against Cal).
It’s the sort of thing that’s pretty mundane on its face, but actually is super special. And while I’m not sure where, exactly, this quality comes from for this particular group of players, I do have a theory.
In WSU’s history, with rare exception, its best teams have been senior laden. This team is one of those exceptions. There’s youth all over the field for the Cougars.
But while the team is young, its soul is old.
Do you want a high-five from Gardner? #GoCougs pic.twitter.com/a9gaSExWiG— Coug Guys & Gals (@CougGuysGals) November 18, 2018
The offense and the defense are each led by the most valuable commodity in all of college sports: Desperate seniors who are acutely aware of their athletic mortality.
Nine months ago, Gardner Minshew II and Peyton Pelluer believed their careers probably were over. Minshew was headed to Alabama as a grad transfer to hold a clipboard behind a couple of guys who had won national championships; Pelluer was healing from a fractured foot and crossing his fingers that the NCAA would grant him one more year of eligibility, which casual observers figured was a long shot.
Then, suddenly, each was given a new lease on his football life. A gift of a golden ticket: One more year to make good on the decade or so of preparation that went into competing at the highest level possible.
Given one last chance to play, neither Minshew nor Pelluer was going to give anything less than their very best shot at it — and that included dragging their youthful teammates along with them, first as they got ready for the season, then as the stakes have grown, week by week.
What follows is a cliché, but it’s a cliché because it’s true: Only those who have come face to face with losing it all can truly appreciate what they have. And it’s usually those who have lost it all who are willing to do anything to make sure they don’t lose it again.
It would be natural for some to conclude that this would add a measure of pressure for these guys — that as the weeks go by and the stakes grow and the actual end draws nearer, the butts would get tighter and tighter and tighter. But everything we’ve seen from this team indicates they’re actually getting looser and looser and looser.
That’s because this ain’t pressure. Pressure is figuring out what to do with your life once the thing you’ve single mindedly worked toward — football — finally ends. This? I’ll just relay a little anecdote from Jayson Jenks’ fun feature on Minshew in The Athletic:
Minshew won the job at East Carolina last year and his teammates voted him team captain, but he got benched in the first game of the season. “Crushed,” he says. He was afraid to mess up and worried about every throw. When he got another shot, he promised himself, he wouldn’t do that again.
His philosophy ever since: “Sometimes you’ve gotta have a little bit of ‘screw it.’ ”
Which is why, despite every shred of evidence to the contrary in Mike Leach/Chris Petersen matchups, I’m feeling pretty good about what’s going to go down on Friday. The Cougs might lose — this is the Apple Cup, after all — but I’m certain that if they do, it won’t be in the manner in which it’s happened in the last few years.
You’d probably be hard pressed to find another player who wants to beat Washington as badly as Pelluer. And Minshew doesn’t know he’s supposed to be scared of the Big Bad Husky Defense, never mind the fact that I’m not sure he’s actually scared of anything anymore — this is all too much damned fun to be scared.
And both of these guys can practically taste the opportunity that’s waiting on the other side of a win over the Huskies.
If things go a little sideways, as they have a tendency to do in this game? These are two guys who have experienced true adversity who aren’t going to be discombobulated by an early interception or missed tackle. We know it because we’ve already seen it! They’ve told their teammates to climb on their backs all year, and they’ve come up huge time and time again.
The Face Plant hasn’t come yet.
It’s not coming this week, either.
Sometimes, you gotta follow your players’ lead and have a little bit of “screw it” and believe with your whole heart that this year is the year.
What We Liked
The hottest topic of conversation all week was what WSU defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys was going to cook up in an effort to contain Khalil Tate from shredding us in the manner he did the year before.
It didn’t take long to see what the plan was: A controlled pass rush with a linebacker spy to keep Tate from getting to open space. On the third play of the game, Tate rolled away from the rush, only to be shadowed by Pelluer. Tate looked vertical — as the game wore on, it became obvious that Arizona’s scramble drill consisted of receivers just taking off down field — and tried to loft a pass over the top, allowing Marcus Strong to come up with the only possible interception that could rival Jahad Woods’ against Eastern Washington.
Time and again, Tate found himself hemmed in and without acres of space to roam; as his receivers took their defenders with them down the field, there was almost always a WSU defender looming in front, forcing Tate to throw the ball.
That’s not to say WSU completely shut him down; Tate still threw for 294 yards, making some absolutely ridiculous throws on the move (with the benefit of a little bit of uncalled offensive pass interference from time to time).
But you can live with that if Tate isn’t beating you with his feet, and he did not: Despite a long run of 33 yards — which was the result of a blitz and poor rush discipline — he only ran for 25 yards on the game, as WSU was able to sack him four times and keep the majority of his other gains modest. Without the ability to regularly move the chains in that way, Tate misfired just enough to keep the Wildcats from ever seriously threatening.
The other thing that made it work? J.J. Taylor was bottled up all night, too. He came into the game with more than 1,200 yards but gained only 69 on 20 carries.
Speaking of awesome run defense, let’s go down that road for a minute.
All the stat heroes get a lot of love in P.J.’s player of the week columns. You know who doesn’t get a lot of stats? The nose tackle. Do you know who’s absolutely essential to a run defense that ranks an astounding third in the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game allowed? The nose tackle.
WSU’s nose tackle is Taylor Comfort. And I love him.
Be honest: You were terrified of Comfort holding down the middle of the line, just like I was. Moving from Toni Pole to Robert Barber to Daniel Ekuale to a 280-pound former linebacker walk-on with comically short arms sounded like a recipe for disaster, particularly with the unexpected departures of the other two guys expected to eat up snaps at the position (Ngalu Tapa and Pono Lolohea).
That was just another thing we were stupid to be scared of heading into the season. Comfort has 18 tackles, including four for loss with two of them being sacks. He’s been better than we could have hoped, disrupting running plays and even getting occasional pressure on the QB, and it’s about time Comfort gets his due.
He reminds me a lot of another undersized former walk-on who was key to an incredible WSU team. Those of you who were around in 1997 would remember Lee Harrison, the anchor of the Fat Five at center. It’s stories like these that contribute to the way we’ll remember these special seasons.
So here’s to Taylor Comfort: The guy I stupidly doubted who deserves more recognition than he gets.
What Needs Work
For goodness sake, get the long snapper a hypnotist or something. And, again ... scrap the stupid rugby punts.
(Listen ... it’s hard to come up with much on this front when your team scores 10 touchdowns.)
You know. Go Cougs. Beat UW.