A little over a month ago, shortly after the win over Oregon, I was talking on the phone with someone close to the football program.
"We need to get you back on board," he said. "This team is so close."
I told him Saturday was awesome, and that it was a great start. I told him I wanted to be wrong about Mike Leach and where the program was heading.
"Jeff, I'm telling you -- I see it everyday. These guys are taking on Coach's personality."
At which point I thought to myself: What in the world does that even mean? Are the players getting snippy with the media? Becoming more generally aloof? Taking breaks at practice to exchange stories about using coupons on their first dates?
After Saturday's last-minute win on the road over No. 18 UCLA -- which came on the heels of a come-from-behind victory over ASU, which came on the heels of a closer-than-expected loss to then No. 8 Stanford, which came on the heels of a fairly comfortable road win at Arizona, which came on the heels of an obliteration of Oregon State, which came on the heels of that crazy overtime win over Oregon at Autzen ...
I think I'm starting to understand what he meant.
With just a couple of games left in the season, the characteristics that define this team have come entirely into focus. These Cougars are absolutely relentless and single-minded in pursuit of their goals. When it seems like they should be content with what they've accomplished, they're not. When it feels like they might cower from an opponent that has bullied them over the years, they don't. When they have an opportunity to pack it in and call it a day -- as they've done so many times in the last decade -- they refuse.
They play with passion. They embrace their unique qualities. They don't give a damn what anyone else thinks of them.
They're a collection of college football misfits, the vast majority of whom weren't recruited by big time programs. They're guys who have gotten where they are by being tougher and more committed than their opponents, clawing their way up from the bottom.
The Pac-12 bowl selection process, explained
If you're confused about how teams end up in which bowl game, you've come to the right place.
They're Mike Leach.
"This team, more than any other team, has taken on the personality of our coach. We just go on to the next thing," junior receiver Gabe Marks told the assembled media yesterday. "If we’re up by 40 or we’re down by a touchdown or 10 points or whatever like that, it’s still the next drive. We have an opportunity go out there and make a play."
This transformation truly is remarkable because for the vast majority of his tenure, this isn't the Leach we thought we acquired. I openly wondered if he just didn't have it anymore. Others wondered if he was just mailing it in at this point -- content to collect his hefty paycheck in the low-pressure environment of Pullman, Washington, knowing that it didn't work out ... well, he at least had a $6 million golden parachute waiting on the other side.
Mostly, I just wanted to know how the guy that Texas Tech fans swore we were getting -- the one I read about in his best-selling book -- got lost between Lubbock and Key West and Pullman.
(Of course, the off-the-wall quotes didn't get lost. Those definitely showed up. And maaaaan were they getting increasingly annoying in the context of mounting losses.)
Mike Leach has finally arrived -- or, at least, the manifestation of his personality finally has, on the field.
I'm sure Leach would tell you he's been here all along, doing what he does, demanding what he demands of players, and that the current state of affairs is simply a result of A) the process of
running off replacing the malcontents very nice young men recruited by Paul Wulff with players of his staff's own choosing, and B) allowing those players to mature. He's alluded to both.
But mostly, it's become crystal clear that Leach has still got it. More than any other athletic realm, colleges thrive on the cult of personalty of their coaches -- the age of the players makes them particularly receptive to idealistic tropes, and the constant roster churn ensures the message never gets entirely stale. The guy who got where he is by grinding his way through Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, Iowa Wesleyan and Valdosta State with an outrageous offense diagrammed on napkins can still communicate to 18- to 23-year-olds just what it takes to reach that level of excellence.
And this is where we get excited about the relative youth of the roster all over again -- only this time, it's not from a talent perspective. This isn't a senior-laden squad that was shaped over half a decade and will subsequently leave a leadership void at the end of the season; roughly 15 of 22 starters will return, led by an insanely good quarterback who is surrounded by a ton of weapons.
At 7-3, it's bizarre to keep saying this, but we'll say it again: All signs point to the best being yet to come at WSU.
Wherever you're at with this team, either stay excited or get excited -- those are really your only two options.
What We Liked
Downside to the team winning a bunch of games: Even after taking last week off from writing this column (stupid real life), I find myself running out of things to say for these recognition spots. So much has been so good, and it's generally the same kind of stuff.
There was, however, one unit that stepped up that was new.
We've used that hashtag derisively this season -- it originated with special teams coach Eric Mele's tweets during fall camp -- but today I am sincere: The special teams were excellent on Saturday. Coverage was excellent, Zach Charme had a couple of coffin-corner punts, and Erik Powell hit his lone field goal attempt.
By my count, this makes three consecutive weeks of generally positive special teams play -- in that time, the longest kick return was 23 yards, and the longest punt return was 12 yards. Needless to say, that's not long enough for anyone to score a touchdown. The Cougars have also used discretion when appropriate, such as when they refused to let Christian McCaffrey touch the ball.
Credit where due: Mele has turned this unit around. And rather than being a detriment, #SpecialForces are helping WSU win games.
The quarterback was pretty good, I guess. I'm not sure what else there is to say about Luke Falk's performance that I didn't say on Saturday, so I'm just going to put this here and you can smile some more.
Honorable mentions: Gabe Marks, Dom Williams, Destiny Vaeao, Andre Dillard, Gunnar Eklund, and Kache Palacio for this
How to block on a kickoff: pic.twitter.com/GRVzUZtIIi— Brian Floyd (@BrianMFloyd) November 18, 2015
What Needs Work?
About the only thing I can really think of is the fact that the defense never did a sack of Josh Rosen.* A lot of that had to do with Rosen's uncanny ability to slide around in the pocket, but there were a few times it seemed like the line should have been able to get home.
*Although there should have been two intentional grounding calls.
Let's get back to our quarterback-harassing ways this weekend against a green QB from Colorado.
Colorado comes to town, and the Buffaloes are reeling ... and hurting.
The Buffs have now lost six of seven, with the lone win a narrow victory over Oregon State about a month ago. However, they're not the pushover their 1-6 conference record would suggest; Colorado only lost to USC by a field goal on Saturday and only lost to UCLA by four two weeks before that.
Although these Cougs have seemed to be immune from the typical season pitfalls that plague other teams, this still has the appearance of a potential trap game: The team's riding high on the hog after not just beating UCLA but earning a top 25 ranking, and Colorado has nothing to lose.
That said, Colorado will be playing without starting quarterback Sefo Liufau, who is out for the rest of the season. Redshirt freshman Cade Apsay took over, and while his 18-for-23 looks pretty OK, the 128 yards it yielded -- 5.6 yards per attempt -- doesn't look all that great. He did throw a pair of touchdowns, though.
He also was sacked five times.
WSU is objectively better than Colorado. If WSU plays as it has, this game won't be close. If, somehow, WSU overlooks the Buffs -- because of Liufau's absence, because the crowd will be lame at the beginning of Thanksgiving break, because the weather probably will suck -- then who knows.