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The Monday After: Come on home, Cougs

The loss to ASU invites you to slip under the warm blanket of WSU’s historic volatility.

Scott Van Pelt, the host of the best version of ESPN’s iconic highlight show “SportsCenter,” is known for a lot of things — affability, wit, honesty — but he’s probably best known for his distinct look, which includes a pair of thick-rimmed glasses and a notable lack of follicle activity on top of his head:

He and his sometimes sidekick Stanford Steve — who sports a virtually identical look, minus the glasses — have a hilarious segment they call “Come On Home,” which features video of athletes who just need to give up the losing battle with their receding hairlines. LeBron James and Manu Ginobili have made the list, but this interview is the coup de gras:

The message is simple: This is your destiny. This is who you are. Better to embrace it rather than futilely fighting something that is so obviously inevitable.

(Old-time Cougs, you can probably see where this is heading. You younger folks ... well, keep going.)

After four years of football that were unlike anything our program had ever seen, we spent a lot of time convincing ourselves that this was the Washington State Cougars’ new normal: minimum eight-win seasons, contending for division titles on an annual basis, no rebuilding years. With faith that was well earned by Mike Leach and buttressed by financial commitments to the program, the only question seemed to be how WSU was going to break through the glass ceiling and get back to a Rose Bowl.

But college football, perhaps as much as anything in existence — with very, very few exceptions — almost always eventually reminds us who we really are.

To that I say: Come on home, Cougs.

The young Cougs among us who have only known the last four years are getting one hell of an initiation this season into the reality of WSU football fandom. From Babe Hollingbery to Mike Price, the program literally has never avoided cyclical downturns no matter who has been coach.

Deep down inside, those of us who have been around for longer than Leach’s tenure knew this was going to come eventually. In fact, we all felt it ... before last season, weirdly enough. But then an excellent group of seniors, supplemented by a couple of other seniors who were never supposed to be there, kept pulling rabbits out of their hats, taking us on a magical ride.

A ride that really only delayed the inevitable.

Come on home, Cougs.

Long-time WSU fans — of which, by the way, I don’t really count myself one, having only been a Coug since 1995 — will tell you all about how this is very, very normal. Then they’ll go on to correct themselves and tell you that, actually, this isn’t normal at all because, in terms of cyclical downturns, this is still pretty great: A bowl game remains firmly within reach. Even just in my 25 years as a WSU fan, this is hardly “losing to Idaho in consecutive years including once on our own field that the Vandals rented from us” depths of despair, nor is it even remotely approaching Wulffian levels.

That’s mostly because of the offense, which at least appears to still be extremely good after putting up 34 points and nearly 500 yards on essentially 10 drives against an Arizona State Sun Devils defense that most people think is at least above average. But, conceptually, this is pretty much what it always is when WSU struggles as a program to maintain a certain level of success: One side of the ball craters for whatever reason, torpedoing what otherwise would be a very promising season.

History has shown us that when you’re WSU, it takes something just short of an act of God for both sides of the ball to be good at the same time. Consider our Pac-12 ranks in yards per play over Leach’s tenure — conference games only:

WSU YPP Pac-12 Rank

Year Offense Defense Overall Record
Year Offense Defense Overall Record
2012 11 9 3-9
2013 9 10 6-7
2014 6 11 3-9
2015 5 6 9-4
2016 3 7 8-5
2017 9 2 9-4
2018 2 8 11-2
2019 2 12 3-3

In all of this run of success, we’ve never actually been good at both offense and defense at the same time.

If this team has even just a below average defense — or, one like last year that repeatedly bails itself out with turnovers — WSU is sitting at 5-1 and ranked inside the top 20. Instead, we’re riding a three-game losing streak that’s causing us to wonder if it’s actually possible to miss a bowl game with this offense.

Young folks, take it from someone who watched Bill Doba turn 1,900 rushing yards from Jerome Harrison into a 4-7 record: It’s entirely possible. That season started 3-0 and then careened into a seven-game losing streak that included five losses by four or fewer points.

Come on home, Cougs.

I’m not saying that’s what’s on tap. And I’m not saying this doesn’t suck. It totally sucks! But it’s also ... well, it’s also just who we have always been. We should aspire to more, and I’m glad we are — but look, when your down cycle now involves still having an excellent shot at making a bowl, I’d argue we’ve already accomplished more than we ever have.

The key to bowl eligibility this season is pretty clearly going to rest on the defense playing like the 9th or 10th worst defense in the league and not the 12th. That should be enough to allow us to beat some combination of two or three of Colorado/Oregon State/Stanford and maybe even pull off one upset of Oregon/Cal/UW. Since 2012, only two teams have had a defense finish 11 or 12 in the conference in YPP against and still made a bowl game: 2012 Arizona and 2015 ASU. (The Wildcats paired it with the No. 3 offense, while the Sun Devils offense ranked No. 6.)

It’s going to be tight. It’ll probably make your knuckles turn white as you hold on for dear life every week.

But you also could choose to just be like my CougCenter colleague Brian Anderson, and embrace this season while waiting for the upturn to begin again, “This feels like slipping under a warm blanket to watch a good offense and terrible defense. Being above average at both was too weird.”

Come on home, Cougs.


What We Liked: WR toughness

Washington State v Arizona State Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

As you probably know by now, ASU defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales issued a call to action to his charges, imploring them to hit the WSU wide receivers so hard that they ended up hurt. But in case you need a refresher:

“If they’re flying around and they’re mean and nasty and physical, and they want to try and hurt somebody every time a receiver catches the ball, and we got nine or 10 of them trying to kill that dude, I mean, literally trying to just run him into the ground, then all of a sudden, balls start rolling on the ground, and they don’t want to catch it and run. They want to catch it and cringe, and that’s what the idea is.”

ASU Twitter got up in a tizzy that I had the temerity to besmirch the good name of their assistant coach by suggesting that he actually wanted players to be injured — even though that’s literally what he said, invoking language of physical harm three times (there was another quote where he said he wanted them to leave the game limping). I wondered aloud if it would lead to dirty play.

Of course it did. ASU defenders consistently launched themselves into the head and neck area of WSU receivers — Easop Winston Jr. took a forearm and helmet to the head at one point, and there was even a play where the ASU defender missed his target and launched himself into the helmet of his teammate making the tackle.

For all that, WSU wide receivers caught 39 balls for 434 yards, I don’t recall any passes that were flat dropped, and they fumbled exactly zero receptions.

The stud among them was Winston, who caught 14 passes for 114 yards. He was a tactician on the outside, consistently beating the coverage to get open on slant after slant as ASU endeavored to clog up the middle and play physical on the outside. If the ball was in the area, no matter how tight the coverage, Winston caught it. It was a masterclass.

Gonzales, meanwhile, looked like a fool as his defense got shredded. Thank goodness nobody got “hurt.”

Who Impressed: Jayden Daniels

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 12 Washington State at Arizona State Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We typically reserve this space for someone on the Cougs who impressed, but I feel like I need to make a special place for Daniels. For someone who is a true freshman ... man, he ain’t playing like one.

Daniels was one of the top QB recruits in the 2019 class, and it looks like the evaluators got that one right. He appears to be every bit the real deal, making plenty of throws and doing damage with his legs. More than that, though, he takes good care of the ball and shows tremendous poise.

That was Daniels’ third game over 10 yards per attempt, and he’s only been under 7 ypa in one game — he even put up 7.3 against Cal, the most the Golden Bears have allowed this season. He’s a low-volume passer, but he’s doing a lot of damage with the opportunities he gets.

Honorable Mention: Dallas Hobbs. The new No. 1 nose tackle did as well as anyone could have expected — three tackles, one sack — but it also seemed that he got tired, as would be expected in that kind of heat. Still, a very positive outing.

What Needs Work: Mike Leach’s game management

Washington State v Arizona State Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Well, there are lots of things that need work, but we’ve been over most of them before and what happened on Saturday wasn’t exactly unique. However, there was one thing that continues to irritate me.

Mike Leach is a smart dude who is renowned for his intellectual curiosity. So it continues to astound me that he’s never quite been able to put his finger on strategic decisions during the course of the game that will optimize his team’s chances to win.

As befitting someone with an affinity for pirates, media members love characterizing Leach as a swashbuckling coach who throws caution to the wind and goes for it on fourth down with abandon. That’s true from a strictly statistical standpoint. But those of us who watch the team play every game know that when the game gets tight and Leach has a chance to allow his offense to make a play to control the game, Leach more often chooses the conservative route.

This was true in two different instances on Saturday.

The first was with 2:50 to play in the first half. Facing 4th-and-3 from the WSU 38, and leading 17-7 on the heels of a successful drive and then a defensive stop, Leach elected to punt. To that point, the defense had stopped ASU on three of its four drives, so that — plus the game state — likely led Leach to his decision.

Of course, we know how it turned out; two plays later, Brandon Aiyuk had taken it 86 yards to the house.

The second was with 2:30 to play in the game. Facing 4th and 5 from the ASU 14, with the game tied at 31, Leach elected to kick a field goal. The decision to take the points would seem obvious.

We also know how that turned out, as 10 plays later, Daniels was in the end zone and the Cougs had lost.

One of my great pet peeves is results-based analysis, so please understand that this is not that. I was advocating for WSU to go for it on both of those plays, both in public on Twitter and in semi-private in our CougCenter Slack.

In a vacuum, both of those decisions make a ton of sense. WSU, however, does not operate in a vacuum: Mike Leach is coaching a team with one of the worst defenses in FBS, and all decisions must be taken in that context. You could argue that neither of those drives should have faced a fourth down, and that’s probably true, but they did. The decision to kick is a conscious decision to give the ball back to the other team — without maximizing points, regardless of the results of the kick — which will then have an opportunity to score on WSU’s defense.

It’s not like this is a phenomenon unique to Saturday’s loss; this also happened against UCLA. That one was at least a little more understandable in the sense that the team was 3-0 and there was reason to believe the defense wasn’t objectively terrible. There is no longer any reason to believe that.

Leach needs to start coaching the team he has and not the team he hopes he has. The offense is by far the better unit, and anything that gives those guys the chance to win the game for you is the right decision. The defense has to play, but putting the game in the hands of the defense at any point is going to be a terrible decision that is likely to blow up in your face.

Swing your sword, coach. Let your best players win you these games.

Up Next! Colorado Buffaloes

These two teams are remarkably similar, featuring good offenses and disastrous defenses — the Buffs are No. 10 in both total defense and yards per play allowed, but No. 6 in total offense and No. 9 in yards per play. Both of those latter stats were suppressed by Colorado’s last game against Oregon, whose defense looks like the best in the conference.

The WSU offense is probably a tick better than Colorado’s, and Colorado’s defense is probably a tick better than WSU’s. The Cougs are playing at home, which means the oddsmakers opened the line at ...

Cougs minus 12 12?

And it’s up to Cougs minus 13 12???

I have no idea what Vegas knows that I don’t, because I’m fully expecting this game to be massively drunk with Roy Philpott and Kelly Stouffer screaming incoherently into their ESPNU microphones as these teams trade haymakers. WSU-Cal 2014 Redux is not off the table.

Homecoming kickoff is scheduled for 4 p.m. PT.

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