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The Monday After: Trying not to play the ‘what-if’ game

One very bad play is going to dominate our thoughts, but we shouldn’t let it overshadow the positives.

PULLMAN, WA - NOVEMBER 14: Washington State WR Jamire Calvin (6) catches a pass out of bounds in the forth quarter of the Pac 12 North divisional matchup between the Oregon Ducks and the Washington State Cougars on November 14, 2020, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, WA.
PULLMAN, WA - NOVEMBER 14: Washington State WR Jamire Calvin (6) catches a pass out of bounds in the forth quarter of the Pac 12 North divisional matchup between the Oregon Ducks and the Washington State Cougars on November 14, 2020, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, WA.
Jack Ellis/For CougCenter

It’s probably too much to say that one play cost the Washington State Cougars the win over the No. 11 Oregon Ducks on Saturday, and yet, it’s probably not too much to say that one play cost them the chance to pick up the win.

I try to remind myself that allowing one play to color my interpretations of a particular game is pretty dumb, and yet, here I am, a big dummy still thinking about that big dumb play at the end of the first half.

Since I’m not a coach, I can’t tell you whose fault that play was. There was a lot of crapping on George Hicks III on Twitter, since he was the one whom Jaylon Redd ran past, but Hicks looked like he was expecting to have safety help behind him, as if it was Cover 2. The safety, Ayden Hector, had stepped up on the inside receiver, rather than remaining as deep as the deepest man, suggesting he thought the Cougs were in a four-deep zone where Hicks would keep his man in front of him.

Obviously, one of them was wrong, and I’m guessing that having a new coaching staff in just its second game exacerbates the likelihood that something is going to get screwed up when the team is playing situational football. Of course, that’s of little consolation today.

That it felt so entirely preventable is only part of the reason it stung so much; it also changed the complexion of the game. The Cougs were going to have a difficult enough time winning the game without gifting Oregon a touchdown, and as the Ducks started to surge past WSU in the second half, it became painfully obvious just how costly of a blunder that touchdown was.

I generally don’t like to play what-if when analyzing games; there usually are just too many variables and possible outcomes to take it seriously. But the probability of any team scoring a touchdown from their own 40 with 18 seconds to play is so low that we can at least safely say that it should not have happened, so much so that we can indulge ourselves in the what-ifs, relatively guilt free.

This is what I mean when I say that play cost WSU a chance to win the game: If we assume everything else plays out exactly the same way in the 2nd half, WSU ties the game with Deon McIntosh’s one-yard TD with 4:40 to go in the contest; if Oregon still scores a TD with 1:40 to play, WSU is receiving the ball with a chance to tie it.

Instead, what actually happened, was that WSU was never really in it after Oregon’s third unanswered TD to take a 28-19 lead, the Ducks forever remaining just beyond our reach.

Maybe they don’t get that TD to tie the game, just like they didn’t in the actual game when they were down by 14. They probably don’t. But we would feel a lot different this morning if that’s a one-possession game throughout. That’s why one stupid play has stayed with me a lot longer than it should have, even if it likely didn’t change the outcome of the game.

The other “missed opportunities” don’t bother me nearly as much, to be honest. I know everyone wants to get more than 10 points out of the three turnovers that set WSU up around midfield each time — fans are greedy like that; however, Oregon’s defense is pretty freaking great, and it’s no fluke that they really, really tighten up in the red zone: In 2019, the Ducks allowed TDs on just 36% of opponents’ red zone trips, second in the entire country. If we’d have gotten two touchdowns out of those, instead of a TD and a FG, I’d have thought that was a pretty great outcome. But, since the Ducks get a bit of say in how that turns out, 10 points was what I would consider OK.

The bigger problem was that the defense just couldn’t stop the Ducks when the Ducks weren’t busy tripping over their own feet. I don’t consider those turnovers major accomplishments, because none of them really signify great defense. Yes, that was a really good strip by Ahmir Crowder, and yes, Hector made a nice play on the interception, but let’s be honest about the fact that those were more about Oregon mistakes. Good on the Cougs for taking advantage, and thank goodness fumble luck was on our side — twice. But I can’t read too much into that.

(To be honest, the best defense play probably was one that wasn’t made — a pass on the first drive that somehow touched two sets of WSU hands and somehow wasn’t picked off. Maybe I should focus on that play, too, given that the drive eventually ended in a TD? Sigh.)

And frankly, I don’t think Oregon’s offense is that good. Yes, they’ve scored 78 points in their first two games, but the Stanford defense that allowed them 35 points turned around this week and allowed Colorado to also score 35. Tyler Shough might end up being very good, but his passing lacks polish and his decision making is sometimes questionable — he could should have thrown another interception to the Cougs, and he could have easily thrown two more to Stanford in that game.

It’s just painfully clear that Jake Dickert has a long way to go with his unit, as the defense is only marginally improved from “total train wreck” to “multi-car collision.”

However, after watching the Cougs win the first game pretty convincingly over Oregon State, then hang around with Oregon for most of the night, I’m thinking I might have undersold the team’s prospects this season by just a hair. I feel real comfortable saying Oregon is the best team we’re going to see this season — the opponent-adjusted efficiency metrics all rank them right around 10. The USC Trojans might have something to say about that by the time that game rolls around, but I doubt it, since they look to be what they’ve generally been under Clay Helton, and they’re ranked around 20. Both of those numbers jive with the eye test.

But everyone else? ESPN’s FPI metric gives the Cougs a greater than 40% chance against the Stanford Cardinal, Washington Huskies and California Golden Bears; I initially thought they could get one of those to get to two wins overall before the crossover, but now, it wouldn’t surprise me if they get two of them — the Cougs are about as good as any of those three, and there’s no reason why they can’t hang with USC.

What We Liked: The offense is for real

PULLMAN, WA - NOVEMBER 14: Washington State RB Deon McIntosh (3) runs past Oregon DE Kayvon Thibodeaux (5) in the second quarter of the Pac 12 North divisional matchup between the Oregon Ducks and the Washington State Cougars on November 14, 2020, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, WA.
Deon McIntosh nearly topped 100 yards for the second consecutive game.
Jack Ellis/For CougCenter

My pessimism about the defense is buoyed by increased optimism about the offense. I said before the season that the combination of great offense and terrible defense was likely to be more problematic this year than it was last year, simply because it was unreasonable to expect that the Cougs would be able to sustain their offensive level of play from last season, for myriad reasons — change in offensive philosophy, true freshman QB, etc.

They haven’t been at the Anthony Gordon Air Raid level ... but they’ve actually not been that far off! Opponent adjust efficiency metrics SP+ and FEI rank WSU’s offense as 14th and 15th overall, and while that’s not the elite level of last season, that’s still pretty freaking good — certainly better than I expected.

That, of course, starts with Jayden de Laura, who was once again very good: 25-of-39, 321 yards, two touchdowns, zero interceptions. He made some dynamite throws — TD 1 to Lucas Bacon being a great example — and narrowly missed a couple of others. The accuracy was improved (64%-55%), as was the explosiveness (8.2-6.9 yards per attempt). He didn’t run it with much effectiveness, and there were a few times he might have been better served by running than trying to keep looking down field, but he’ll figure out that balance.

I think the thing I found most remarkable is that he didn’t fall into the trap of forcing the ball into tighter and tighter windows as the game started to near its conclusion. He just shows an uncommon maturity.

Overall, this was a pretty sizable step forward. There still will be rough patches; improvement is never perfectly linear. But man, it’s hard not to get super excited for the role he can play in helping this team pick up a couple of more wins.

Who Impressed: Ayden Hector

Oregon v Washington State
Ayden Hector, apparently a ball magnet.
Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

It’s amazing (and maybe also just a tiny bit depressing?) that Hector already looks like one of the best players on the defense. It’s not shocking that the walk-on, who was a four-star recruit as a high school player last year, is having an immediate impact — it’s pretty plain to see why he was a four-star recruit. There’s a physical maturity and athleticism that we don’t typically see out of our freshmen.

That said, the prominent role that he has seized is a little bit stunning, even as it’s an extremely welcome development. The defense obviously needs all the talent it can get right now, and if it’s coming from a true freshman, then so be it.

I do find it interesting that neither broadcast has decided to tread into the background of how Hector ended up at WSU in the first place. It doesn’t surprise me that the broadcasters on the first game had no idea who he was, but I would have thought that as a starter for the second game against a marquee opponent, they’d be a little more prepared.

There’s zero chance that’ll be the case this weekend against Stanford, both because of his performance last week (Pac-12 freshman of the week!) and because he originally signed with the Cardinal before Stanford — according to reports — rescinded his admission in light of his role in an alleged sexual assault. It’s been established that he was never a suspect in the alleged assault itself, but beyond that, it’s a set of circumstances that is still shrouded in mystery, and I’m curious how it will be addressed. There are probably at least some of you who wish it would just be swept away, but WSU is going to have to wear this one and ride it out, because it’s not going to just disappear, especially as Hector’s influence increases.

I’m not saying WSU made the wrong decision to bring him aboard; the young man seems to certainly have paid a price for whatever happened that night when he was 16, and Nick Rolovich is in the honeymoon phase with us fans where we inherently trust him when he says, “we did our due diligence.” Not everyone is going to be satisfied with that. And there are obviously trade-offs that a school like WSU will make in order to add superlative talent that we fans will accept. That doesn’t mean everyone else will feel that way — nor should they — so Hector’s situation is probably going to be a thing that stirs debate, sooner or later, and Rolovich is probably going to have to answer for it again, but to a larger audience.

Honorable mention: Jayden de Laura, Renard Bell (10 catches, 158 yards), Jahad Woods (8 solo tackles, one sack, three tackles for loss, one pass break up)

What needs work: Rolovich’s game theory

NCAA Football: Oregon at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

I smiled a little when WSU tried to pick up two points from the 1 12-yard line after its first touchdown, and I smiled even a little more when he followed that up with a pooch kick that was ostensibly designed to catch Oregon off guard and maybe steal a possession.

Both moves failed. But that didn’t stop me from smiling, because I’m a huge advocate of underdogs playing high-variance strategies that could potentially give them a boost when they’re out-manned. And it appeared Nick Rolovich was leaning into that strategy, trying to manufacture advantages where he could.

So imagine my surprise when, in the fourth quarter, Rolovich elected to kick a field goal from the Oregon 7-yard line on 4th-and-4 while down by 9 rather than try to maximize points.

Are you trying to maximize all points? Or not? If you’re going to be aggressive early, why change the strategy late? WSU’s previous two possessions had ended in punts, while Oregon’s had ended in touchdowns. The Cougars couldn’t make it all up with one score, but it seemed pretty obvious that WSU was going to need every possible point to have a chance to win the game.

Kicking the field goal is the safe choice, but when you strip away the appearance of “getting points” being inherently positive, it definitely was a little bit of a cowardly choice when the coach himself should know how bad his defense is. Here’s to hoping we see more of the early game Rolovich and less of the late game Rolovich going forward.

Honorable Mention: Pac-12 refs targeting review. Seriously wtf was that? The dude lowered his head and smashed it straight into the head of Renard Bell, intentionally. If the whole point of the rule is to take head-to-head hits — where one of the heads is being used as a weapon — out of the game, how can that not be targeting? I think the intent of the rule is good, but that whole sequence showed why the rule is so very stupid. Nobody — not even the people who have access to frame-by-frame reviews of the incident — actually knows what targeting is.

Up Next: Stanford Cardinal

Colorado v Stanford Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Stanford is coming off its second consecutive loss to open the season as the descent of the Cardinal program continues. Once the bullies of the Pac-12 North, the Cardinal won just four games last season and are now going to need to win four of their last five games in order to get back to a bowl game for the first time since 2018.

It sure seems like the biggest difference between the halcyon days and now is the Cardinal defense. Once a physically intimidating bunch, Stanford didn’t allow more than 22.9 points a game from 2010-2018. Last season, that jumped to 29.8; this season, it’s 35.0, and SP+ ranks the Cardinal defense 70th(!!). For comparison, Oregon State is ranked 80th. There should be lots of points to be had in this one for the Cougs.

The Cardinal offense also is nothing to write home about, but that doesn’t mean WSU can actually stop Stanford. The Cardinal had a fair amount of success running the ball against Oregon in the opener with a backup QB; then, the Cardinal went crazy pass happy in the second game with Davis Mills back under center. So who knows what Shaw will try to do this weekend. If he’s as smart as everyone thinks he is, he’ll probably run the ball 40 times, but if there’s one thing we know, it’s that Shaw will probably outthink himself.

Take the over. Kickoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. PT on FS1.

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