Monday Morning Quarterbacking with Alex Brink

FOR TWO REASONS, the Cougars' Apple Cup loss Friday was tough to take. First, getting to the seven-win mark after so many down years would have guaranteed a bowl berth. And second, the game was pretty much lost on just three plays. Mike Leach described the contest as "sliced very thin." That's a perfect description.

Indeed, the difference between hoisting the trophy Friday and dejectedly walking to the locker room was incredibly narrow.

Take away just one of the following plays and the outcome could have been far different. Take away all three and the Cougs are holding the Apple Cup for the second straight season.

Now think about this for a moment. Between the two teams, there were more than 150 snaps on Friday. And three of them truly dictated the outcome ...

1) 3rd-and-5 Tailback Screen by UW in the 3rd Quarter

I'm sure all Coug fans are wondering how it is possible for Bishop Sankey to rip off 40 yards on a simple screen, especially on third down. Surely Washington State was accounting for the Huskies' main offensive weapon on that play, right? The short answer is yes, they were accounting for him. The problem was created by the coverage the Cougar defense was playing. For much of the first half Mike Breske had called for cover-2-man (two deep safeties with everyone else playing man) on long yardage or third downs. This strategy was very effective because it neutralized Washington's potent offensive weapons in two ways: deep safeties eliminate downfield throws and man coverage underneath by the corners and linebackers disrupts the timing on short passes. The problem with two safeties deep is that it matches up a linebacker on the running back when he releases on pass routes. Generally, this means a slower guy is trying to cover a player who is fast and can catch well. In addition, because offensive linemen release downfield on a screen, it means there was only one player they needed to block to spring Sankey free. All the other Cougar defenders had their backs turned, playing man coverage on receivers running downfield. Had Washington State been in some form of zone coverage there would have been multiple defensive players in a position to rally to the ball. It was an excellent second-half adjustment by the Huskies that turned out to be the main turning point in this game.


2) 3rd-and-2 Zone Read by WSU in the 4th Quarter

Of all the plays in the Apple Cup, I am still confused by this one. On the first drive of the fourth quarter, the Cougars put together a string of first downs and got down to the Husky 37. At this point, WSU was down 20-10 and in desperate need of points to regain momentum. Following two quick passing plays to create a 3rd-and-short, Washington State called a zone read running play (running back runs inside zone while quarterback "reads" the defensive end to either hand it off or run the ball himself.) The "zone read" in itself is not a bad play call, but it has not been a part of the WSU offense at all this year. In fact, I'm nearly positive the first time it had been called with the option for Connor Halliday to keep the ball was in the first half of the Apple Cup. He managed a decent run for a first down that first time around but at no point is anyone going to confuse Halliday for Johnny Manziel. In this fourth-quarter situation, he lost a yard on the play, creating a 4th-and-3 situation. The Cougs went for it and didn't convert on an incomplete pass. Bottom, they came away with no points in a crucial situation.

3) Halliday interception, by Ducre, with 5:20 left in game

This play was heartbreaking. Washington State had done a valiant job fighting back to cut the UW lead to 20-17 late in the fourth quarter. The momentum had been flipped to the crimson side. Unfortunately, one poor throw by Halliday ruined what was otherwise a solid performance. It's easy to point at the quarterback and blame him but I want to focus on the defensive play of the Huskies. It says a lot about the WSU receivers that UW defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox chose to play man-coverage on the biggest drive of the game. He was challenging the Cougar offense. We all saw the ball thrown behind Isiah Myers, allowing Gregory Ducre a chance to pick it. When you go back and look at the play you can see that Halliday is forced to throw it behind him because of the Husky defensive structure. Just before the snap, the safety on the short side of the field rotated down over the WSU slot receiver, thus putting the linebacker to that side into man-to-man on the running back. This made John Timu, the linebacker to the wide side of the field, a free defender with no coverage responsibility so he simply followed Connor's eyes and dropped underneath the quick post. If Halliday had thrown it in front of Myers then Timu would have intercepted it. Caught in a tough situation he made a split-second decision that proved to be wrong. It happens to all quarterbacks and hopefully Halliday will learn from it.

DESPITE THE LOSS, THE COUGARS need to regroup and prepare for the possibility of a bowl berth. They have exceeded expectations this year and hopefully earn the opportunity to end on a high note. Regardless, there are a number of positive things to build on going forward. I love the mentality Mike Leach and his staff have created within the program. There is now an expectation for success that is going to be vital if Washington State wants to get into the upper echelon of the Pac-12.

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 and then this season with Montreal. He also is the head quarterbacks coach for the Barton Football Academy based in Portland. He can be found on twitter at @AlexBrink10.

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