LEAF: Don't kid yourselves, Cougs improved

A FELLOW COUG sent me a wonderful email this week about the column that I wrote on Tuesday. He closed the message by saying how nice it was that I found a calling in journalism. I'm not sure I qualify as a journalist but I do enjoy writing. But more than anything, I had to chuckle because I seem to recall that journalists and I didn't necessarily have glowing remarks for one another.

So I always promised myself that if ever the tables were reversed, and I had an opportunity to do something like this column or some color commentating, that I would never be overly critical in my remarks. That's because these are still just kids or, at the most, young men, we're watching out on the football field.

Purely as students, they have so many expectations on them. Layer on big-time sports and it's a whole new level. So for me, the words of Teddy Roosevelt ring loud. It's not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The real credit belongs to the man who is actually in the stadium, whose face is covered by dust, sweat, and blood, who strives courageously yet might fall short. If that man fails he fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat!

I sit over this keyboard and look at the blank canvas and try to decide what to write about when it comes to the Cougars' loss in Stillwater last Saturday night and what it might mean for this Saturday's game with Montana State.

I do know that the 2010 Cougar team is much improved from last season and I know I wasn't the only one who, when the score closed to 17-10 in the second quarter, didn't think so as well. Offensively, the Cougars protected the quarterback much better than they have in a long time. And as we all saw, when Jeff Tuel is protected he is very accurate and doesn't turn the ball over. That is a very big deal.

I was also pleasantly surprised to see James Montgomery playing tailback after the compartment syndrome matter with his leg last season. The running game needs to be more consistent and that starts up front with the offensive line and their mentality. I almost feel silly trying to dissect something that all the coaches saw and are working to improve.

It's not rocket science. I find that after a loss, whether it's by 1 point or 48, people tend to jump to conclusions and over-analyze every little thing, when in reality it's more about developing an identity and sticking to it. Coaches are one in the same. We are creatures of habit, and simplicity and routine is key to that. Remember our prolific offense at WSU in 1997 and how complicated things seemed to look? I bet that it would surprise most of you to know that it was as simple as this: If there were five defenders in the box I'd check run and if there was six then I would check pass. If you're always searching for something week in and week out you'll never be great at the simple stuff that can make you champions.

Which brings me to this week's opponent: the Montana State Fighting Bobcats and the ideas that are swirling around all over the place. I was lucky enough to play with some Hall of Fame running backs in my short-lived pro career -- people such as Emmitt Smith, Shaun Alexander and Warrick Dunn -- and I will tell you right now that Kendall Hunter of Oklahoma State is a true superstar. He will play on Sunday's and he'll play very well. The Cougs gave up a ton of points to OSU, but I'm here to tell you right now that it happened because the Cowboys feature one of the great talents in college football today. The Cougars aren't going to face a tougher running back this season.

Given the Cougars' youth, it's tough to open the season against a guy like that. But the learning experience will serve them well.

Tackling, of course. will have to be much better for the Cougs this week, regardless who the running back is, but the simple fact is that the defense won't be looking at strength, speed and quickness even faintly resembling Hunter's.

There is a whole lot of talk going on about this being a "trap game," and a possible opportunity for the Bobcats to finally defeat a Pac-10 opponent. My response to all of that is pretty straight forward: I believe that any team can beat any team on any given day in college football. I see it happen every year.

But ...

But some perspective is helpful. When I was a WSU freshman in 1995, the Montana Grizzlies came to town. They were led by Walter Payton Award recipient Dave Dickenson and they would go on that season to win the Division I-AA National Championship. We Cougars finished that year with a 3-8 record. Yet we handled those Grizzlies, the best in the country in what is now called the FCS, convincingly.

We beat them by 17 and I got to see my first-ever college action at quarterback in some mop up time. Confidence is key and I don't believe it's a game where the Cougs will play tight. I think that if anything they will be more loose than normal. They should be. They're part of the Pac-10. And they're also much better than they were a year ago.

On a personal note, I want to thank the many Cougs who contacted me this week and last with powerful messages of courage, strength, hope and support. It's a great honor to hear stories, from the fans' perspective, about the 1997 Cougs and how that season affected and shaped their lives. It's very inspiring for me to read.

And on a final note, I will be bringing my father, John, to the game this weekend. He's a Bobcat grad, but don't hold that against him -- I have a sneaky suspicion he'll be on the Cougar side and wearing a golden oldie of a polo shirt from a sunny day in January 1998. I grew up following the Bobcats, especially the Kelly Bradley-led club that won the 1984 National Championship. I always believed MSU was the hard-working, blue collar school like WSU. Best of luck to them, but as always, Martin Stadium is Home Sweet Home!! Go Cougs.

Ryan Leaf is a Washington State graduate who quarterbacked the 1997 Cougars to the Pac-10 title, a top 10 national finish and a berth in the 1998 Rose Bowl. He shattered records, earned first-team All-America honors, and was a Heisman Trophy finalist. He later spent four seasons in the NFL, and three seasons as the quarterbacks coach at West Texas A&M. Today, Ryan still keeps many balls in the air. He works in sales and marketing for West Coast Resorts, has become a passionate advocate for those trying to overcome addiction to prescription painkillers, is pursuing varied business interests, and writing a periodic column for CF.C. He can be contacted at rdl16@aol.com.

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