Before I get into the first Monday After column of the season, I have to take care of a little bit of business. Here goes:
I — Jeff Nusser — don’t always know what I’m talking about when it comes to Cougar football, particularly when guessing the number of carries Clay Markoff will receive for a season.
Thanks for the fun, japeslevelor. If you talk to Clay, tell him that I’m super happy for him, and hopefully we can have that beer anyway. On to the pontificating!
One of the reasons these things come out on Mondays is because I really like to ruminate on the game for a day or so — I always hope that the benefit of 24-48 hours of reflection leads me to an insight that’s maybe not so clear in the immediate aftermath of a game.
(Side note: I’ll never know how guys like John Blanchette do it the way they do on deadline. Coming up with something incisive and well-written that quickly? That stuff is hard, man. However you feel about him and his particular opinions of Washington State University, I’ll always admire his craft.)
I just figure that if I’m going to spend a bunch of time writing a couple thousand words and you’re going to invest some of your limited time to read those words, I probably should make it worth all of our while and not say the same thing everyone else is saying.
But when the vast majority of the game goes almost exactly as you expect it to — and the way you expected it to go involves your team beating the crap out of the overmatched opponent, 58-7 — it doesn’t leave you with a ton of options.
Grand pronouncements about the season prospects are tempting, but ... well, New Mexico State. The Aggies might well not be as bad as we all presume; after all, Wyoming turned out to be a 6-6 team last season, and there were a lot of questions early last season as to just how good that win actually was.
But we also surely remember 2011 because ... ok, maybe you blocked that from your memory, but Paul Wulff’s last team outscored its first two opponents by a combined 123-28. I feel confident saying this season will not go like that season (for so, so, so many reasons), but the point remains we don’t really yet know what a 51-point win over this particular opponent means.
However, week one of the college football landscape was littered — as usual — with losses that weren’t supposed to happen or wins that were a lot more uncomfortable than what everyone expected. Heck, it wasn’t even that long ago when we were all like DOES MIKE LEACH EVEN KNOW HOW TO PREPARE HIS TEAM FOR A SEASON?? and there they were, running over, around and through the Aggies like they were the scout team.
That WSU avoided even a smidge of discomfort — by the time it was 14-7, it was clear how this one was going to go — simply continues to validate the things we already know about the program under Leach.
Which leads us to the one and only thing that was even mildly surprising.
My God, was Anthony Gordon breathtakingly awesome.
I think I was optimistic as anyone outside Gordon’s family when it came to what he might be able to do with this offense, but I certainly didn’t imagine that — not right out of the gate — and I don’t know if even his family imagined that kind of ridiculous performance.
What was most striking to me wasn’t the final stats, but how Gordon got to the final stats. They were gaudy, for sure, but there are a lot of ways to get to big numbers. For example, a quarterback could do a lot of chucking the ball downfield and hoping for the best, which is fun, but not necessarily predictive.
Gordon was ruthlessly efficient, demonstrating complete and total command of the Air Raid. His throws were decisive, they were precise, and they were almost all to the wide receivers, something I think was indicative of just how confident Gordon was in his first start. The running backs picked up just two passing targets — both to Max Borghi — out of Gordon’s 35 throws. Without spending the time to look up all the box scores, I can’t imagine there’s any game in the last few years that approaches that kind of ratio.
I’m not implying throws to running backs are bad, they’re an important part of the offense, and there will be a time and place for that to be a weapon this year. I’m just saying that there was obvious real estate available down the field on Saturday, and Gordon was relentless in pursuing it, rather than resting in the relative safety of a dump off to Borghi that surely would have resulted in chunks of yards, anyway, regardless of whether it was the best available option.
Gordon repeatedly led his receivers into space such that they regularly gained chunks of yards after the catch. That last piece is the key that unlocks the true potential of this offense, particularly when you have guys who can do this:
— Pac-12 Network (@Pac12Network) September 1, 2019
No one catching Dezmon Patmon! #Pac12FB
Watch @WSUCougarFB ➡️ https://t.co/wKz7fK5zeh pic.twitter.com/XVYOz3ARF2
If that throw is a little behind Patmon, or just a split second later, maybe he doesn’t run all the way for a TD. (OK, he probably still does, but work with me.) Those little things really do add immeasurably to the overall efficiency of the offense. Consider that the difference between a top 20 offense and a bottom 20 offense in 2018 was about two yards per play — the best offenses are around 7.0, while the worst are around 5.0. It’s an oversimplification, but just an extra couple of yards every play makes a massive, massive difference, and Gordon appears equipped to make that happen.
There’s also an arm strength element to this. WSU’s last two quarterbacks had strong enough arms, but Gordon’s is the best we’ve seen since Connor Halliday, and you saw on Saturday what sorts of opportunities open up with that kind of velocity and that quick of a release.
Even Mike Leach was ... impressed?
“As far as a first-time start,” Leach said, “he was as precise as anybody I’ve ever had.”
“Real quick, real precise,” Leach said. “He did communicate well. There’s a clarity to how he runs the huddle. He did a really good job of putting them in the end zone. There wasn’t that kind of first-game stuff where somebody’s afraid to make a mistake. Put them in the end zone right away.”
Again, it’s risky to read too much into one performance. But last year, Gardner Minshew led the Cougs back from a six-point third quarter deficit in what would be a harbinger of the rest of the season. Come to think of it ... Luke Falk’s debut was pretty good, too.
Screw it, we’re going 13-0 and Gordon’s winning the Heisman. Who’s with me??
What We Liked
Beautiful night sky set against a scoreboard that's on fire! #GoCougs @WSUCougarFB #MartinStadium pic.twitter.com/gqovg9X48l— Jim Stafford (@topcoug) September 1, 2019
The sky is definitely beautiful in this picture, but that’s not the most noteworthy thing — check out the entirely full student section!
Another good look at it:
This wouldn’t post during the game, but here is Wazzu’s first TD of the year. Rodrick Fisher on the nice find from Anthony Gordon. Cougs offense was firing on all cylinders for the whole game. #WSUFootball pic.twitter.com/FvACQvGBCC— Asher Lynde (@volcanicashman) September 1, 2019
Labor Day weekend games are notoriously lightly attended, particularly when the opponent is terrible (which it almost always is). That’s generally led by an absence of students, who have been in school for a couple of weeks and for some reason have traditionally been dying to get home or go see Dave at the Gorge or whatever instead of taking in one of the limited number of WSU football games they get the privilege to attend during their undergraduate studies.
Not this generation of students! They showed out, and for that, I salute them!
How awesome was it that Rodrick Fisher not only worked his way into the starting lineup, but also parlayed that into the first touchdown of the game and his career — a long bomb in which he simply ran right by an unsuspecting defender?
Fisher’s story is well known to just about all of our fans at this point — you can catch up here if for some reason you’re unfamiliar — if not well known to the country, it was introduced by the Pac-12 Network after his touchdown.
But it’s important to remember that Fisher also suffered his fair share of adversity last year. Some of it was his own doing, picking up a “baby DUI” before the season started. Then, after just a few games, he was shut down for the season with a shoulder injury that required surgery.
Fisher came into this season as the solid No. 3 at X receiver behind Tay Martin and Calvin Jackson Jr. But then fall camp happened, and Fisher just kept torching people, earning praise along the way:
The two Spokane natives going at it during 1-on-1’s. Rodrick Fisher gives Armani Marsh an inside jab then motors past him for the TD. pic.twitter.com/eqQeDgt1Ph— Jackson Gardner (@jacksonmgardner) August 7, 2019
Gage Gubrud's stat line tonight: 8/11 for 100 yds, 2 tds, and one int.— Brenna Greene (@BrennaGreene_) August 10, 2019
Here's what he had to say about his first WSU scrimmage (also the Rodrick Fisher TD in the video).
H/T @WSUCougars pic.twitter.com/aTw7SdAHI8
It resulted in the unlikeliest scenario: The redshirt freshman passing a pair of upperclassmen to secure the start in the season opener. We all know that Leach’s program is a meritocracy, but it still can be a little jarring when you see it.
“Thought he played good, thought he played fast,” Leach said of Fisher. “One thing Rod Fisher always does is play full speed. I think that’s one thing that’s distinguished him. He doesn’t waste any time playing slow.”
It’ll be fascinating to see how this plays out going forward. All three guys are worthy of starting, but once the games get tighter, only two guys are going to play. Fisher has probably the highest upside of the trio, having been a former four-star recruit and a reputation for being the fastest player on the team.
Leach said they’re still trying to figure it out, but Fisher didn’t make his job any easier. And that so, so cool.
What Needs Work
I wish this picture was representative of the kind of pressure Josh Adkins was under all night. Alas, Adkins was able to move the ball with relative ease early in the game, as the Aggies scored a touchdown on their second drive.
Not exactly reason to panic, but not exactly the dominance we were hoping to see — which probably is the best way to describe the defensive performance on the whole.
The defense wasn’t “bad,” per se. Giving up just a hair over 300 yards for the game at a 4.7 yards per play clip isn’t alarming. But watching NMSU pick up chunks of yards at times is the sort of thing that gets you thinking, “Well, that’s not supposed to happen!” It just felt ... meh.
Now, some of that certainly was narrative setting early on — the second half was much better than the first, as WSU allowed just 130 yards and took the ball away three times. But still ... I’m hoping to see some strides this weekend.
WSU hosts FCS Southwest. Northern Colorado is likely worse than New Mexico State, which is probably why there’s no line on this game to be found. If the final margin isn’t about the same as this one, it’ll be mildly concerning.
Kickoff is scheduled for the family-friendly time of 2 p.m. and the game is again on Pac-12 Network.