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

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The Monday After: No longer on schedule

It’s time to reassess everything we thought we knew about WSU after a once-in-a-lifetime meltdown loss to UCLA.

Nick Saban catches a lot of flak from casual fans for his relentless pursuit of perfection, even when it’s clear that such a standard is not necessary to win any number of games that the Alabama Crimson Tide play.

Now you know why Saban is the way he is.

At some point on Saturday night — perhaps before they took the field, perhaps once they went up by 32 points midway through the third quarter — the Washington State Cougars believed that losing to the UCLA Bruins was not possible. I generally try not to make grand conclusions about players’ mindsets because I do not know them personally, but I feel 100% confident drawing that conclusion.

Heck, right up until a free rusher blew past Liam Ryan and clobbered Anthony Gordon from his blindside for the final back-breaking turnover, *I* didn’t think it was actually possible for them to lose. This, despite the fact that UCLA had already twice taken the lead! Only when Ryan was just a fraction late trying to jump on the fumble caused by his miscue did I realize we were not going to cover 75 yards in a minute to win the game, and we would not all be wiping our brows, saying “wow that was a close one! Gonna need to clean up those turnovers!” before going to bed.

After rolling through their first two games and then coming back to handily win the third with less-than-perfect performances, the players obviously thought the same thing. The difference in this one, though, is that UCLA still has more four- and five-star recruits than we do, and they’re coached by a guy who once was considered one of the game’s great coaches and it turns out that he actually didn’t forget everything he knew when everyone considered him a generational offensive mastermind.

Granted, it took something significantly less than a less-than-perfect performance to write the script of this all-time collapse, but it served as a good reminder that WSU has never been and will never be good enough to just show up and sleepwalk through a conference game, no matter how much the opponent appears to be struggling.

Additionally, it’s now painfully clear that I was wrong last week — this team is not on schedule. When previous performances are put in the light of Saturday night, they probably never were actually on schedule. Unfortunately, though, you just don’t really know until it’s too late.

I had been inclined to give Mike Leach and his staff every benefit of the doubt. They’ve earned that over the past four years. Hence, my measured assessments of struggles and proclivity toward optimism even as warning signs were clear and obvious against a trio of what should have been overmatched opponents on both sides of the ball.

One of the reasons why I wasn’t panicking through those first three games was because Leach wasn’t panicking. His message never wavered; he was consistent about saying his team needed to get more consistent. Leach doesn’t typically make it much of a secret when he’s dissatisfied, and the only message he was sending publicly was that they just needed to get a little better to put it all together. I believed him.

Maybe he believed it, too. Or maybe he’s getting a little softer as he gets a little older. Or maybe — and this is the scary one — he has known all along that his defense was going to be overmatched this season so there’s no sense in beating them down. I have no idea. Hindsight always presents the clearest view, and I’m trying hard not to use that to pile on what is already an unmitigated disaster, but it’s now obvious that this is the actual environment in which I wrote my column after beating Houston:

Perhaps this seems reactionary. And I’d be prone to agree if the confluence of events that led to the loss could be explained away in its totality by the crazy randomness of sports. To be sure, there was some of that; five fumbles leading to five recoveries by UCLA (with a little help from the officials) is beyond absurd, to say nothing of a deflected pass that also resulted in a diving interception. And it’s a little easier to explain away a pair of return TDs, painful as they were, when you remember that special teams have generally been nails under Matt Brock.

But even with all of that, the only thing the defense had to do was not allow UCLA to score 53 points — or, put another way, not allow UCLA to score more points in four quarters than it had scored in its first three games combined. And the Bruins didn’t do it with a bunch of trick plays or weirdness, as the Oregon State Beavers did last year; an offense that had been one of the worst in all of college football just flat whipped the Cougar defense.

That’s where this game diverges from 2014 Cal, which was led by a future No. 1 overall NFL draft pick. It was no surprise that offense couldn’t be stopped by that defense. We already knew that defense was horrendous, leading to the firing of Mike Breske and eventual hiring of Alex Grinch. But Saturday night? There’s no earthly realm on which UCLA should have been able to score seven offensive touchdowns or gain 8.8 yards per play, which was more than double its average in the previous three games, no matter what kind of tough position the offensive turnovers put them in.

Unless you believe we’re dealing with a 2014-level defense .......... ?

It feels to me that the best we now can hope for now is that they somehow figure out a way to play even just below-average defense in order to keep 2019 WSU from becoming 2016 Texas Tech — or, worse, 2014 WSU. I don’t think that’s on the table, because this offense is so much better than 2014. But I think the new target for this season is probably three or four more wins against what we’ve known all along was a very difficult schedule.

Man, does that realization suck.

What We Liked: Epic Offense

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

There’s been a lot of “we would have won the game if the offense hadn’t turned the ball over six times” floating around, which I find an extremely curious way of looking at what went wrong on Saturday.

Personally, I think the proper way to look at it is “holy crap the offense turned the ball over six times and STILL SCORED 63 POINTS?? THAT’S FREAKING AMAZING!!!!” It’s not crazy to think the Cougars likely would have scored even more touchdowns if they hadn’t given the ball away so many times; truly, the only thing that kept us from #Drop70 or #Drop77 or #Drop84 was our own inability to hang onto the ball.

I do understand why people aren’t looking at it that way. I get it. But it’s mind-boggling how incredible that performance is. Anthony Gordon threw for nine dang touchdowns. NINE. A school record! At a school that’s had some pretty good quarterbacks! And lost in the shuffle is that Easop Winston Jr. caught four of those nine touchdown passes to tie the school single-game record. Absolutely incredible.

As Craig pointed out on our podcast, the WSU offense has moved up to No. 4 in Bill Connelly’s SP+, an opponent-adjusted metric that mixes success rate (staying ahead of the chains) with explosive plays to measure a unit’s overall efficiency. That’s a stratosphere the Cougars haven’t touched during Leach’s tenure at WSU — they finished 13th last season. If moving from 13th to 4th doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, consider that it means WSU’s offense this season is about eight points per game better than last season against an average defense.

Yes, the turnovers were bad. Yes, they contributed to the loss. But as it was in 2014 when so many people wanted to blame special teams or whatever for the loss to Cal, the offense did enough to win and should be recognized as such. If you score 63 points, I don’t actually give one single eff about what the offense did with whatever of the other possessions were empty. That ought to be enough to win any game, full stop.

Please, please give it the proper appreciation.

Who Impressed: Anthony Gordon

UCLA v Washington State Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

I mean, could this possibly go to anyone else?

I know we’ve showered Gordon with superlatives this season, and yet somehow, it just doesn’t seem like it’s enough. I don’t really have anything new to add to the piles of analysis of his play over the first month of the season; he did more of what we’ve come to expect from him, tossing the ball decisively and aggressively all over the yard, exploiting mismatches for big plays.

The thing I think I love most about Gordon is that nothing seems to phase him. He didn’t panic when he threw an early interception each of the last two weeks; the next drive ended in a touchdown. He didn’t panic when the team ended up blowing all of that 32-point lead; the next drive was when he dumped it off to Borghi — rather than forcing the ball into coverage — leading to the long TD. With a chance to put the game away, he fired a dart on 1st and 15 to Winston that should have resulted in a first down.

And you can’t convince me that he wouldn’t have thrown a 10th touchdown to win the game if he hadn’t gotten destroyed on his final dropback by a guy he never saw.

Honorable mention: Max Borghi, who had 203 yards from scrimmage, including 123 on just 15 rushes. After piling up 128 yards on the ground against New Mexico State, the WSU notes said Borghi is the first Cougar running back since Dwight Tardy to have two 100-yard rushing games in a season. That’s really good!

What Needs Work: The Defensive Coaching Staff

NCAA Football: UCLA at Washington State
The defense allowed UCLA to gain nearly as many yards in one game as the Bruins had in their first three games combined.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

We thought defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys was a mastermind after stepping in competently for Grinch last season. Perhaps that was too generous, because after these first four games of Claeys’ second season in charge, you’re really only left with two possible conclusions. Either ...

  1. Grinch oversaw the recruitment of some very terrible players. Or,
  2. Claeys is doing a Breske-level coaching job this season.

I try not to reduce things to binary options because that usually results in a false dichotomy. But in this case, I really don’t see how there’s room for any other explanation. And I’m leaning toward option 2 at the moment. (Although, there’s also room for people who believe No. 1. Definitely worth your time to listen.)

I’m not football smart enough to know what to make of the schemes. But here’s what I do know: More than one player seems to have regressed this season and the the back seven doesn’t seem to know which way it’s supposed to run half the time with particular attention to the secondary that got shredded by a guy who doubled his season output in yardage in this one game.

The most brilliant scheme in the world doesn’t do a damn bit of good if the players aren’t executing it, and unless you’re buying into No. 1 above, that’s something that’s on the coaches to bring out of the players. Remember: You’re either coaching it, or you’re allowing it to happen.

Actually, I guess there’s a third option: The coaching attrition finally took its toll on the defense, with linebackers coach Ken Wilson being the last straw. Wilson was the longest tenured staffer on the defensive side, and he helped bridge the gap from Grinch — who was extremely hands on — to Claeys, who is ... not very hands on, at least during practices and games.

Whatever it is, the defense is on the verge of torpedoing the efforts of what could go down as one of the very best offenses in Leach’s career. What should have been celebrated as one of the greatest individual offensive performances in WSU history has already been ruined. That stain will never go away, the stink never washed off. Claeys and that defensive staff will forever have presided over the night one of the worst offenses in FBS dropped 50 in a half.

With a third of the season gone, my faith is pretty low that a dramatic turnaround is just around the corner on that side of the ball. It seems like a funny thing to say after last week, when I was praising them for getting it together in the second half, using that to think they took a step forward. But when you step back and just look at the big picture without trying to craft a “they’re getting better” narrative, here’s what you’ve seen in every game: A half(ish) of OK defense and a half(ish) of awful defense.

Against Pac-12 offenses — literally any Pac-12 offense, since we just saw the worst one drop 53 points on us — a half(ish) of awful defense can be enough to lose the game, and it’s very easy to imagine a realm in which the half(ish) of awful defense becomes much more than a half(ish) when playing better offenses.

I guess your feeling about the team going forward comes down to whether you think this is exactly who they are, or if you think the half(ish) of OK defense is going to expand — or, at least, hang around long enough so as not to require perfection from the offense in order to win.

Personally, I’m feeling pretty pessimistic.

Dishonorable Mention: Mike Leach’s butt pucker. My gosh does he get it as bad as Mike Price, and that’s really saying something. Most of the time, Leach’s stoic nature during a game is a steadying influence, but when the wheels are falling off and he gets that vacant stare — you know the one — before calling a time out and electing to punt on 4th-and-4 inside UCLA territory? The whole team feels it, and it can’t be covered up by a couple of defensive time outs that are supposed to rally the squad. I love Mike Leach as a football coach and I also wish he could change this part of him. These two things are not mutually exclusive.

Up Next! The Utah Utes

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 20 Utah at USC Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Kyle Whittingham’s perennially overrated football team is coming off a devastating loss of its own — a 30-23 loss to the USC Trojans on the road. What could have been a matchup between two top 15 teams with ESPN’s College Gameday in town now features one team that dropped out of the polls (us) and another team that went from the top 10 to No. 19

An interesting thing here is that while many of us are feeling very doom and gloom right now, there’s a chance Utah is feeling worse. However delusional it was, the Utes believed they had a serious chance at making a run to the CFP. Not only is that now highly unlikely, they also are down a tie-breaker to USC, and they also appear likely to be without Zack Moss, their preseason all-Pac-12 first team running back.

There has been no update on Moss’ condition, and while I’m not a doctor, this looks bad for a running back:

If you’re extremely pessimistic about our chances even in light of that, you’re certainly not alone in our fan base. However, once you get outside our fans, the view is not so dark: Utah opened the game as an 8-point favorite, and the consensus line has already dropped to 6 — you can even find 5 12 in some places!

That’s likely not only due to Moss’ injury, but also due to the fact that USC’s third string QB threw for a billion yards as the Trojans repeatedly torched Utah’s vaunted corners. You’ll be shocked to learn that WSU’s offense led by Gordon is better than USC’s offense with a third stringer, so that’s probably why there were so many people jumping on WSU +8 — at the very least, bettors are expecting a close game.

Kickoff on Saturday will be at 7 p.m. PT on FS1.

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