There’s a running gag among the CougCenter authors and some WSU fans on Twitter when it comes to the Air Raid: #Drop70, which is a semi-serious joke about how many points the Washington State Cougars are going to score on a given Saturday.
Of course, #Drop70 has never actually happened in Mike Leach’s tenure in Pullman (it did, however, happen four times while he was at Texas Tech), but that’s always the dream — 10 touchdowns, 70 points, no mercy.
Last weekend’s 56-37 win over the Oregon State Beavers was as good a chance as we’ve had in some time for #Drop70; the offense was nearly unstoppable, scoring touchdowns on seven of its nine possessions, including the last five in a row. (The eighth TD and 10th “possession” was that blocked punt.) But therein lies the rub: With only nine possessions, the defense needed to be just a little bit better — a bit worse actually might have worked, too — to squeeze out a couple of more chances to score TDs.
Alas, it was not to be. The dream will have to wait just a bit longer.
Still, that was fun as heck to watch — just like pretty much all of this season has been — even if the fact that Oregon State hung around for a while was a little annoying. But let’s be clear about one thing: OSU never had a chance, and they knew it. Why else do you unload every last trick play you can come up with and go for it on nearly every fourth down? I don’t begrudge Jonathan Smith for heading down that road; I’m a big advocate of underdogs employing high variance strategies. But the Beavers’ approach says something about what Smith and his staff thought was necessary to get over the hump in this one. They weren’t going to need only one unusually explosive play; they were going to need several of them just to keep up with WSU’s offense.
The Cougs obviously proved him right. The offense’s 8.6 yards per play was the most since also putting up 8.6 yards per play against California in 2014 (you might remember that game ... or maybe you’ve scrubbed it from your memory!). Surprisingly, Gardner Minshew II’s 10.8 yards per attempt was even higher than Halliday’s was that night; you actually have to go all the way back to Halliday’s 503 yards on 39 attempts against ASU in 2011 to find a better per-pass performance.
If I go much further down this road, I’m going to end up in the same place I did last week, gushing about how much fun it is to have an offense that slings the ball all over the yard, and encouraging you to become a true Air Raid Disciple — one who lives for the fireworks rather than dreads the ulcers from the game being closer than you’d like. So I’ll spare you that.
I know not everyone prefers their football this way. But if you give me the choice between having a team led by a dominant offense or a dominant defense, GIVE ME THE POINTS SON. I guarantee USC fans were 100 percent terrified when WSU had the ball at the end of that game two weeks ago. And let’s be real — they had every reason to be: In the absence of one dirty ass hit, the Cougs aren’t settling for a field goal attempt; they’re walking out of the LA Coliseum with a 43-39 victory.
An astute reader dropped this reference in last week’s comments, and while Minshew isn’t exactly a meth kingpin (THAT WE KNOW OF), I think it catches the vibe nicely:
There’s probably only one team on the schedule that isn’t at least a little bit scared of what WSU can do to them. And maybe — just maybe — the Cougs can finally break through against that one team ...
Actually, scratch that. As excited as I am, I just can’t go there.
Since it’s not even remotely Monday anymore, and since we’ve spilled many words at this site recapping Saturday’s game, and since it’s now the bye week, and since the bye week falls exactly in the middle of the season ... why don’t we use the space that follows for a look back at the first six games?
What We Liked
It’s no secret that I thought six wins would be a struggle this year, and this is probably the last time I’ll mention that — at this point, it’s no longer really interesting to dwell on how wrong I was when there are much bigger fish on the horizon to fry.
But it’s still relevant to this point as I look back on the first half of the season: My premise was that the drop-off would be precipitated by all of the change around the program; the lack of continuity would cause Mike Leach to have to rebuild not just on-field execution, but a little bit of the culture of the program as well.
That was my mistake.
What’s incredible to me is not that the team already is just one win away from a fourth consecutive bowl — I didn’t think people who said they’d win these five particular games were crazy — it’s that the team is one win away from a bowl looking pretty much just like Leach’s teams have looked for the last three years in terms of attitude, toughness, and resiliency.
While most outsiders will forever associate WSU with the Air Raid, those of us who watch the program closely know that it’s actually those three things that are the identity of WSU football under Leach. It’s not his genius in the passing game that makes him a great head coach — it’s the values that are now so deeply embedded in the program that even the youngest players carry it forward without hesitation.
It really is incredible to behold. And I don’t just mean from a fan standpoint, but also from the standpoint of one who admires great leadership. I don’t always agree with the way Leach runs his program (closed practices, extremely limited access to players, refusal to acknowledge injuries, etc.), but I certainly appreciate the way he prepares his players to win football games on Saturday. He really is very good at what he does, and I very much like him as our coach.
One of the big question marks heading into the season was the offensive line. Mainstays Cody O’Connell and Cole Madison had to be replaced, as well as right guard B.J. Salmonson, who didn’t exactly light the word on fire, but who also apparently was the fifth best lineman on the team, which didn’t inspire confidence going forward.
As a unit, they weren’t actually all that great in 2017. How was 2018 going to be better?
But, again ... they are. So let’s give a ton of credit to Andre Dillard, Liam Ryan, Frederick Mauigoa, Josh Watson and Abraham Lucas for the job they’ve done up front. Minshew has a minuscule 1.6 percent sack rate, ninth best in the country. While Minshew himself obviously gets some credit for that by using his feet or getting rid of the ball, it’s obvious to anyone who has watched the team that Minshew has as much time as he needs to throw the ball on the vast majority of dropbacks.
Additionally, the running game has found new life that was missing last year. While it hasn’t been prolific overall — even by Air Raid standards — it’s been effective when it needs to be. On 32 rushes in the red zone, WSU has scored 11 touchdowns, including three runs of 10 yards or more.
Minshew and his receivers get all the attention, but the offensive line has been really, really good. And just think: Only Dillard graduates.
What Needs Work
I don’t know if it’s possible to make a secondary better in two weeks, but if it is, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys better do whatever it takes to make it happen. As a unit, they’ve been objectively bad since Eastern Washington, and we really believed these guys would at least be solid.
Of the five guys seeing regular time in the back — Sean Harper Jr., Darrien Molton, Jalen Thompson, Skyler Thomas and Marcus Strong — only Harper seems to have acquitted himself well. Molton and Strong have each been frequent targets of opposing quarterbacks, Thomas seems to be struggling in coverage, and even Thompson — thought to be an all-Pac-12 candidate — has had an uncharacteristically tough go of it, particularly in terms of tackling. Maybe it has to do with a general lack of trust among the guys playing in the back.
It got so bad with Molton on Saturday that Claeys took him out of coverage by blitzing him a number of times down the stretch against OSU.
Whatever the problem is, something needs to change. It certainly appears that Claeys doesn’t want to play the soft zones that Alex Grinch favored in an effort to bend but not break before a big play — sack, interception, etc. — killed the drive. Maybe it’s time to rethink that strategy (for this season, at least).
Stress-free football on Saturday. Might I suggest cheering for Oregon to embarrass Washington?