PULLMAN – How prolific is Washington State’s passing attack? Last week, the Cougars broke Pac-12 records – which date back nearly a century, mind you – for passing yards, attempts and completions in a season. How irrelevant is Washington State’s passing attack? The aforementioned records fell in yet another game when the Cougars went down to defeat.
In yet another game when the Cougars gave up more than 50 points. In yet another game when the Cougars failed to rush for 100 yards. In yet another game when the Cougars lost the turnover battle.
Anyone noticing a pattern here? More food for thought: The Washington Huskies, WSU’s opponent in Saturday’s Apple Cup (7:30 p.m., FOX Sports 1), have passed for less than half as many yards as the Cougars, but the Dawgs have won four more games and scored one more point than the Cougs. Granted, Washington has played one more game than the Cougars, but you get the, uh, point.
One need not be a master chef to decipher Washington’s recipe for outplaying Washington State this season. Start with a heaping helping of defense that has yielded 128 fewer points, despite playing the extra game (at Hawaii, which doesn’t count toward the NCAA’s 12-game regular-season limit). Throw in a 24-7 advantage in turnovers gained. Add 17 more quarterback sacks. Mix in a dash of running backs dashing upfield – the Huskies have four times as many rushing yards as the Cougars – and it is not difficult to determine why Washington is 7-5 and Washington State is 3-8.
But facts and figures often give way to guts and emotion in rivalry games like the Apple Cup. The Cougars have lost four of the past five meetings with Washington, but they’ve won three of the past five Apple Cups in Pullman. Only one of those five home games, a 35-28 Washington triumph in 2010, was decided by more than three points.
Snow is not in the forecast Saturday night, but temperatures may dip into the teens. The chilly weather may impact the size of the crowd for a late-November night game (thank you, TV power brokers!) in a small college town that has been largely deserted during Washington State’s traditional week-long break from classes for Thanksgiving.
The weather also could affect WSU’s nation-leading passing offense, but the Cougars are next to last (124th) in rushing, so running the ball seems out of the question. Besides, the Cougars want to take advantage of Washington’s 115th-ranked pass defense. WSU ranks 124th in pass defense — both teams have painfully young secondaries – and the Cougars’ pass rush does not compare to the ferocious one of Washington.
A season-ending victory would likely lift the Cougars out of a last-place tie with Oregon State, since the Beavers figure to lose Saturday to third-ranked Oregon. Winning also would provide the Cougars with another lukewarm consolation prize: Matching the 3-6 conference record of Washington, a team not without its own warts (re: 31 fumbles, 18 more than Wazzu).
Leach’s record after three years on the job is 12-24 (.333), including 7-19 (.269) in the Pac-12 and 2-11 in Pac-12 home games (counting 0-2 at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field). In the 120-year history of WSU football, only three of the 31 previous head coaches posted worse records than Leach. Paul Wulff, Leach’s predecessor, brings up the rear at .184 (9-40, including 4-32 in the Pac-10/12).
Wulff did not leave Leach with much to work with in Pullman. Of course, Bill Doba left Wulff with even less talent (not to mention a whopping three committed recruits). It seems reasonable to expect more out of Leach than Wulff, partly because Leach is being paid almost five times more than Wulff. Leach needs to win Saturday to match the 4-8 record Wulff posted in his final year.
Prior to this season, Leach proclaimed the Cougars to be the best of the three teams he has fielded in Pullman. The Cougars proceeded to immediately collapse amid a sea of defensive gaffes, special-teams disasters, slow starts and lackluster finishes.
Most of the blame, as usual, must be placed on the players. Coaches make no passes, runs, receptions, blocks or tackles. WSU players should be embarrassed to score 59 points and lose, give up back-to-back touchdowns on kickoff returns and miss a game-winning 19-yard field goal. Only two Cougars are worthy of all-conference first-team consideration: record-breaking wide receiver Vince Mayle (who was limited in practice until Thursday after he was seen limping late in the Arizona State Saturday) and perhaps offensive tackle Joe Dahl (who gave up his first sack of the season last week).
Leach and his staff certainly deserve to take some of the heat for another disappointing season on the Palouse.
Leach’s refusal to make opposing defenses play honest against the run has proven costly, particularly in the red zone. Some of the glaring breakdowns on defense and special teams must be traced to coaching. The fact that four players who started on defense in the opening game were basically stapled to the bench the remainder of the season (one of the players soon quit) indicates an inability to judge talent.
One has to wonder if WSU defensive players are hindered by practicing against teammates who were recruited to play a style of offense (pass, pass, pass and pass some more) that most opponents avoid. WSU offensive linemen certainly don’t get much work on their run-blocking.
The Cougars force-fed a horde of freshmen into the lineup this year, but 13th-ranked Arizona State has played even more freshmen, owns a 9-2 record in coach Todd Graham’s third season and crushed WSU 52-31. It’s probably just a coincidence that the Sun Devils had a 98-21 advantage in rushing yards.
Yeah. Right. Coincidence. Never were 601 passing yards – all by promising redshirt freshman Luke Falk, who also threw four interceptions and lost a fumble in his second start – less important than in Tempe. Think about that for a moment. Falk threw for the second-most yards in Pac-12 history, and the Cougars had to score in the final seconds to avoid losing by 28.
The Huskies, 3½-point favorites in the Apple Cup, are headed to their fifth bowl game in as many years. The Apple Cup is WSU’s faux bowl, so the Cougars should be fired up. After all, it’s the Huskies.
During the offseason, Leach no doubt will make time to continue to remind many of his players that he questions their mental toughness and focus and what he perceives to be the long-standing, negative “culture” of Washington State football. To some degree, he has a point. That said, it can be argued that a coach making $2.75 million a year – plus performance bonuses, including $25,000 for an Apple Cup win — should have done more to change that culture by now.