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The Monday After: This season is so great, even Mike Leach is having fun

It’s not just the winning; it’s the winning with this particular group of players.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Stanford
You can almost see him smiling here.
Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Nationally, fans and media members know Washington State Cougars coach Mike Leach as the quirky mastermind of the Air Raid, liable to go off into the weeds on tangents about just about anything from dating to pirates. But we local fans who have watched him closely for the past seven years know him to be somewhat cantankerous and occasionally irascible. The rest of the country got a little window into that last weekend, after it was revealed he had sent text messages calling a Pac-12 executive a “coward.”

Even when things are going well (and they’ve gone well for most of the previous three seasons), Leach could always seem to find something to be grumpy about. That’s not a knock, by the way; that’s pretty standard fare for most leaders who are excellent at what they do. Failing to be satisfied is what allows them to continue to push their organization forward.

But the 2018 season — in which his team that was picked to finish fifth in its own division is now ranked 10th in the entire country, thanks to this weekend’s 41-38 victory over the Stanford Cardinal that moved them to 7-1 overall and into sole possession of first place in the Pac-12 North — has got even Leach feeling a little giddy.

Observe the first 10 seconds of Leach’s postgame news conference, in which coach is out here trying to crack jokes:

Leach definitely needs to work on his comedic timing, but the fact remains that this is the first time in his tenure that I actually believe that Leach is having a good time winning all these games. He might have been having a good time before, but this is the first time I remember him showing it outwardly, barely bothering to hide it.

Seriously, I’m pretty sure this is a smile:

As we’ve gotten deeper into this particular season, there’s been a noticeable loosening up with Leach, who can be combative with reporters even in the best of times. And I think that’s pretty revealing about what kind of team we’re rooting for this year.

Much of what a coach says in public isn’t for us — it’s for the guys in the locker room. So when Leach answers a specific question about game strategy with a general answer that goes something like “I thought our guys were trying to do too much, everyone just needs to focus on doing their job and the rest will take care of itself,” that’s (mostly) not him being obstinate, it’s (mostly) him continuing to coach.

Apparently, this particular group doesn’t need to be coached like that. Maybe they need subtle reminders (here’s to guessing a variation of that is what was said during those first half timeouts when Stanford was marching up and down the field), but for the most part, they don’t need to constantly be reminded to “be a team” and “do their job” and “be the most excited to play” — it appears they’ve got all that more or less nailed down.

Instead, Leach has chosen to go for affirmation. Like most of the foregoing, I have no actual data to back this up, but I don’t know that I’ve heard him say that he was “proud” of his team as much as he has this season. When you win seven of your first eight games, you obviously have a lot of opportunities to say that, but it seems like he’s making a point of it.

Example: In years past, I could imagine him spending much of his postgame news conference bemoaning the lackluster first half and emphasizing how much work there is to do going forward. On Saturday, he praised Stanford’s talent and then praised his team for its resiliency.

“I was proud of our guys for sticking in it,” Leach said after the game. “I think everybody for the Cougs would like to have the first half over, because we think we’re better than what we did in the first half ... but you just gotta stick in it. You never know what’s going to happen in a football game, especially tough and physical guys like them, but we felt like we could execute well, and our guys, sideline wise, we do a good job of sticking together and playing together, so I thought that was really strong for us.”

These guys have had to do a lot of sticking together in the last 10 months.

“We went through a lot of adversity, obviously, with Tyler’s passing, which everybody misses him, and I think that was tough on everybody,” Leach said, “but the best way to honor and glorify one of your friends and relatives is to reach your full potential.”

How have they done it? Leach wasn’t short on ideas.

“I think the biggest thing is we really had a good offseason — a great offseason — I thought (strength and conditioning coach) Tyson (Brown’s) done an outstanding job,” Leach said. “We’ve asked ourselves that same question that you’re asking. I’m not sure part of it doesn’t have to do with the fact that we had so many open jobs, so many people competing for their jobs. You had to fight to get reps.

“And I think the competition — and we tried to elevate it all through the offseason, too, the competition — and also our guys were about that age where ok, now it’s my turn to distinguish myself. ‘Yeah, except we’re not so sure about you, this other guy, we like him too, you know,’ and I think the level of competition was really good, and I think Gardner (Minshew’s) energy escalated that.

“And then the other thing is I think coach Claeys does an outstanding job, and coach Brock as far as holding our team together. There’s none of these ‘sides of the ball’ type of divisions, and those things I hate. It’s just pathetic. There isn’t any of that division and I think that’s kind of elevated everybody. It’s a very supportive, all-for-one environment.

“Maybe the most coachable team I’ve ever had.”

That, more than anything, probably is why Leach seems to be having so much fun. As an educator, I can tell you there’s no more satisfying feeling professionally than when your students take a thing you’ve taught them and run with it. And coaches, being (very well compensated) educators, feel the same — plus, they get the added bonus of tangible results. Even better if those results are unexpected to everyone around you.

“This is not a business for rational people,” Leach said. “And that’s not why anybody comes to the games – to see what’s supposed to happen. They want to be surprised. And it’s an opportunity for players to elevate and do something no one thought they could do and maybe didn’t know they could do themselves. But that starts with expectations and generating them for the whole group.”

That’s an awfully fun place to be as a coach. I’m glad he’s enjoying it. Everyone deserves it.

What We Liked

NCAA Football: Washington State at Stanford Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Stanford’s early lead was keyed by an offensive attack that nobody could have really seen coming: The Cardinal threw the ball early and often, dropping back on 12 of their first 13 plays and a total of 49 times on the night — just a handful fewer times than Minshew and the Air Raid. Stanford called passes on a whopping 74 percent of its plays.

Needless to say, that was a point of discussion after the game, given Stanford’s well-earned reputation as a physical team that wants to punish its opponents via the run. Shaw conceded that last season’s loss to WSU in Pullman, in which the Cardinal ran the ball more than 50 percent of the time, was the impetus for Saturday’s game plan.

“That was a difficult game for me to take,” Shaw said. “I took it hard. This game plan, honestly, started that night. This was the way we wanted to play against these guys. We thought it gave us the best chance to win.”

Think about that for a minute: The coach of Stanford admitted after the game that abandoning the run game gave them the best chance of beating Washington State.

We most definitely like that!

He wasn’t wrong, either; after all, Cardinal running backs have now gained just 221 yards on 50 carries in the last three games against WSU. While that works out to a not great/not terrible 4.4-yard average, it’s greatly inflated by a pair of runs — a 52-yarder by Bryce Love last year, and a 43-yarder this year. Take out those two breakaways, and the average drops all the way to 2.6 yards per carry — a number that consistently puts a team behind the chains.

It’s to Shaw’s credit that he flipped the script. But it’s even more to the Cougs’ credit that they’ve so thoroughly imposed their will on the Cardinal that their coach decided to abandon his team’s identity in an effort to keep up with WSU.

Which, of course, they didn’t. And a huge amount of credit again goes to Tracy Claeys, who did something — I’m not nearly knowledgeable enough to know what — to make K.J. Costello go away from JJ Arcega-Whiteside, who spent the entire first half abusing WSU’s shorter corners. My assumption is that he gave the Cardinal a “robber” look to Arcega-Whiteside’s side of the field.

It’s interesting that Claeys didn’t do that right out of the gate, since we all knew that Arcega-Whiteside was going to be a matchup nightmare. But on the other hand, WSU holding off until the second half to counter left Stanford unable to counter back and fueled the comeback.

Claeys probably knows more than I do. Yay, wins!

Who Impressed?

NCAA Football: Washington State at Stanford Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

For two years, we waited for Dezmon Patmon to consistently make an impact with the physical skills that he so obviously possessed. This year, that has come to fruition.

The Cougs might have won Saturday’s game without Patmon, but then again, they might not have. With WSU needing to dig out of a hole in the third quarter, Minshew went to Patmon repeatedly, including four catches for 10-plus yards each (58 yards total) on the first drive and the then the first three plays of the third drive for 32 yards.

Of Minshew’s 127 yards in the third quarter, 90 of them went to Patmon. He only made one catch in the fourth quarter, but I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that it probably was partially his play in the third quarter that drew the safety and opened up the middle of the field so widely for Jamire Calvin to make his 35-yard catch that set up the game-winning field goal.

Patmon now has 578 yards on the season, first on the team by 100 yards. He’s also become the team’s most explosive receiver, gaining 14.1 yards when he catches the ball. Some of that is big plays, but some of that also is him finally realizing that he’s 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds of chiseled manhood that is capable of lowering a shoulder and dragging someone for a few yards.

Sometimes, it takes guys a few years to get it. In a season full of developments, Patmon’s might be the most satisfying.

What Needs Work?

Washington State v Stanford Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Let’s say this right off the top: No, the corners didn’t play great. But, man ... the officials seemed to have it in for our DBs from the first snap.

Of the Cougars’ four pass interference penalties, only one appeared to be clear cut. Another probably could have gone either way, and I won’t complain about it. However, the last two were not penalties, but by that point, all Costello had to do was throw in the direction of Arcega-Whiteside and the refs were reflexively reaching for their flags. (One ref even got so excited, he threw his beanbag instead of his flag.)

Coming off a questionable P.I. or two last week, it’s reasonable to conclude that our corners are getting themselves a bit of a reputation with the officials. That concerns me more than the penalties themselves, to be honest.

I’m not sure what can be done at this point. Maybe they can work on being just a little less handsy with their technique? I feel like that’s where a lot of this comes from — it looks like they’re impeding the receiver a lot more than they are sometimes. And officials can only call what they think they see.

Up Next!

Washington v California Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Fresh off abusing and dismantling the two Jakes to defeat the Washington Huskies, 12-10, the California Golden Bears travel north to visit the Palouse for Dad’s Weekend.

(Side note: If you’ve come down sufficiently from Saturday’s win and need a little schadefreude to pick you up, might I suggest lurking over here?)

At one point in the season, after getting off to a 3-0 start, the Bears were ranked 24th. They promptly went on a three-game losing streak, which included getting stomped by the Oregon Ducks and UCLA Bruins. They’ve since rebounded with a decisive win over the Oregon State Beavers and then Saturday’s upset over UW to move to 5-3 on the season.

Cal’s defense is pretty tough, as you’d expect from a Justin Wilcox-coached team; the Bears are 17th nationally in yards allowed per game and 16th in yards allowed per play. Additionally, last season’s debacle in Strawberry Canyon probably isn’t far from your mind.

That said, this seems like another prime letdown spot for an opponent, having played a physical, emotional game against the Huskies and then having to go on the road to face the Cougs in a packed house.

Plus, Cal’s offense kinda sucks, having failed to score more than 24 points when playing anyone other than Idaho State or Oregon State. The Bears want to run the ball, which ... yanno, good luck with that if WSU doesn’t turn it over a million times like it did last season.

The game is set for a very late kickoff: 7:45 p.m. PT on ESPN. Try to pace yourselves, dads.