Monday Morning Quarterbacking with Alex Brink

STANFORD WAS CLEARLY the better team in all three phases: offense, defense and special teams. The Cougars needed to play mistake free to compete and it didn't happen. There were still good things about their performance but overall, WSU was outclassed. And although a loss was not altogether unexpected, after a solid start to the season I was anticipating a more competitive effort from the Cougs.

Going forward, there are three things Washington State must clean up as they prepare for the rest of the Pac-12 schedule:

1. Fourth down decision making:
Mike Leach rolled the dice three times on fourth down while the game was still within reach. In the first half, WSU opted to throw a slant on fourth-and-inches from their own 45-yard line. Although the play resulted in a first down due to pass interference, it was an incredibly low percentage call considering Connor Halliday could have fallen forward on a sneak and gotten a few inches. On the first drive of the second quarter Leach decided to go for it on fourth-and-four, again from the WSU 45-yard line. Halliday and Dominique Williams combined on a great throw and catch but again, it was a curious call that early in the game and at the position on the field.


At this point I'm sure many are wondering what I think the issue is -- shoot, the Cougs are two-for-two on fourth down. Well, the problem is the third attempt fell short. On the first drive of the second half, Coach Leach opted to go for a fourth-and-three from the WSU 38-yard line. Down 17-3 and with Halliday playing extremely well, the Cougars were still very much in the game. Field position was at a premium all day and when the offense didn't convert, they gave Stanford an incredibly short field. And yes, the defense forced a three-and-out but Washington State got the ball back on their own 7 yard line. And that's when the wheels fell off. The Stanford defensive line knew WSU was throwing it, pinned their ears back and forced a pressure that led to a pick-six and Halliday got injured. From that point on, it was a route. In general I like Coach Leach's aggressiveness. In previous games we've seen him go for it on fourth down -- but usually on the opposing team's side of the 50-yard line. He clearly has confidence in his offense. However, the fourth-down decisions in this game bordered on reckless in my view and ended up costing Washington State big time.

2. Special teams:
Part and parcel of the fourth down discussion is Washington State's horrendous punting. Mike Bowlin, all night long, didn't inspire a lot of confidence with his punts. There simply has to be more consistency at that position to eliminate the pressure of a short field on the defense. The missed field goal by Andrew Furney before halftime also really hurt the Cougars. Halliday and the offense put together a great drive that should have resulted three points for WSU. This would have made the score 17-6 with the Cougs getting the ball to start the second half. Instead, they were down 17-3 coming out for the third quarter, possibly leading to the decision to gamble on fourth-and-three from their 38. Washington State got very little out of its return units all night -- starting field position for the offense was consistently inside their own 30-yard line. Against a Stanford defense that is one of the best in the country, it is going to be very difficult to put together 70- and 80-yard scoring drives. With as good of athletes as WSU has, they must find a way to make plays in the return game going forward. This season, the margin for error for WSU is going to be very small -- the majority of conference wins will not be blowouts. Special teams is going to play a large role in determining whether the Cougars can get to a bowl game.

3. Get the ball to Gabe Marks:
In the Air Raid offense everyone is going to get touches. For the most part, the opposing defense will dictate who gets the ball. However, there are always ways to get your playmakers the football, especially on third down. Washington State had several big drops in this game. And from watching the first four games, I believe that Gabe Marks is not only the Cougars' most consistent pass catcher, but also the one who can make the most happen after the catch. He will have to be a guy that factors more into this offense if WSU is going to compete against the best in the Pac-12.

DESPITE ALL THE doom and gloom that always accompanies a loss, there were also some good things that stood out from the game against Stanford.

1. Connor Halliday:
Prior to his injury, Connor was playing exceptionally well. He wasn't perfect, but he also got killed by those drops. Against arguably the best defense in the conference, Saturday night in Seattle was the best I had seen him control a game. He made throws into tight windows, threw the ball away against pressure and checked the ball down to his running backs when there was nothing downfield. Halliday is continuing to improve and that should give the Cougars a lot of confidence going forward.

2. No. 20:
Deone Bucannon was, again, all over the place. He makes tackles in the box, made plays in man coverage as well and he had the range to cover the deep zones. Damante Horton got completely beat on a slant-and-go, but Bucannon's ability to read and recover led to the interception that gave WSU their best chance before halftime. The Cougars were playing Cover-4 on that play so that was Horton's route to defend. Deone saw that the inside receiver ran the short slant and quickly bailed to cover the deep quarter that Horton had left open. It was a great play by the WSU safety. In a game where some of the Cougar secondary got exposed, Deone Bucannon was clearly a bright spot.

3. The Cougar Front Four:
For all the talk about Stanford being a power run team, they didn't do a whole lot of running the first half. While the game was still within reach, the Washington State defensive line (I'm including the BUCK here) did an excellent job handling the Cardinal running game. Unfortunately, the combination of d-line and linebacker blitzes also led to open zones in the pass game that Stanford exploited. Against a good team, sometimes you have to pick your poison. Mike Breske elected to stop the run. In the end, the Cougs got burned through the air but I was still impressed the front four held up against such a good running attack.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Brink was the starting quarterback at Washington State from 2004-2007, throwing for more yards and touchdowns than anyone in school history – and the third-most yards in Pac-10 history. He was picked second-team all-Pac-10 twice and honorable mention once. Drafted in the seventh round by the Houston Texans in 2008, he spent a season on their practice squad before playing three years in the Canadian Football League with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers from 2010-2012. Brink is currently the head quarterbacks coach for the Barton Football Academy based in Portland. He can be found on twitter at @AlexBrink10.

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