First, if you have not been to Martin Stadium in a while you need to go. The new press box and premium seating are spectacular. Being there last week reminded me how close to the field the seats are; being a WSU fan is like watching football in the palm of your hand. Those four hours reminded me about everything that is right with college athletics.
Second, though some folks warned that the sky was falling after the Cougs' opening loss to BYU, I am going to tell you why WSU is on the right track to regain the winning ways that once had this program piling up 10 victories a season on a regular basis.
What you have to remember about that track is that it's a process, not an elixir. This season I am concerned with the process, not the promise of things to come. Yes, you do play to win the game, however college football is chess, not checkers. There are no double and triple jumps to victory. All long-term success is earned. And thus there is a process to follow that will ultimately lead to success. In other words: Rinse, wash, and repeat.
That's what I'm talking about when I refer to process. Improvement is a process that leads to progress.
I saw examples of this throughout the BYU game. My favorite probably went unnoticed. Let's think back to last season, and how often players didn't know where to line up. Now think about the BYU game. There was not a single delay of game penalty on the Cougs. Not a single player was confused. To be a successful football player you can't hesitate. You have to react. If you are unsure of what is being asked of you there's not much chance for success. Football experts have said that Mike Leach may run as few as five formations and 25 different plays during the course of any football game. Turning what was once rocket science into plain old English. I love that.
So now let's look at the EWU game.
I attribute the Cougars' mistakes and penalties to being physically tired. It was hot and Eastern is no run-of-the-mill FCS team. Being physically exhausted not only slows your reaction time but it hinders clarity of thought. Holding penalties, attempted arm tackles, Deone Bucannon's late hit. For me, that was all about the need to get into better shape.
Focusing when you're tired is an area of the game WSU is going to have to get better at. It is going to take time. By all accounts, everyone is raving about the Cougs' new strength and conditioning coaching staff and they need to be given a chance to get things done. They have been working with the football team for nine months. Most of the people reading this article have been trying to lose the same 20 pounds for the last nine years so I am sure you can relate to how difficult it can be to achieve the results you want.
One of the successes from the Eastern game was the Cougars' rushing attack. Those 108 ground yards were not a fluke. It could have been better if the offensive line played lower and with more leverage. If you listened to our radio broadcast, then you know that after the first quarter Eastern's defense went primarily to nickel or dime coverages. At times they were rushing only three, and on several snaps only two people. While doing this, they had five defenders in intermediate coverage, and three defenders in deep coverage. It is very difficult to have consistent success passing the ball against this form of coverage. In 1997 when the Cougars were, by most measures, the best offense in college football, we faced this coverage less than 5 percent of the time.
Because Michael Black would have rushed for 300 yards a game if they had. The Fat Five was one of the best offensive lines in WSU history and it wasn't just because they were big, agile and nasty. They had great technique. Leverage was their middle name.
My sense is that an offensive line in the Air-Raid system can become passive because they're always dropping back to protect the quarterback. Eastern going to the nickel and dime turned into a tremendous learning opportunity for the Cougar offensive line to really get into the running game. If the technique improves – and I guarantee you it will each week – then we could be in store for some serious travel down the right track.
But it takes time. It's a process that leads to progress.
When the Cougs kickoff aganist UNLV Friday evening on ESPN, keep an eye out for the process of getting better. Sometimes you'll spot it from one play to the next, sometimes from one quarter to the next, sometimes from one game to the next. But it's there. And it will only make the promise of the future that much sweeter.
Shawn McWashington is a 1998 graduate of Washington State who played a starring role on the 1997 Cougar football team that won the Pac-10 title and came within two seconds of knocking off No. 1 Michigan in the Rose Bowl. His father Ammon was a standout on WSU's fabled 1965 Cardiac Kids. Shawn is the new color analyst on Cougar football radio broadcasts. He lives in Seattle and works as an assistant vice president for the insurance and risk management firm Marsh Inc.