Five WSU takeaways after Week 1

THINGS LOOKED ugly immediately for the Cougs against Rutgers on the first play from scrimmage, surrendering a 78-yard TD pass tends to take the wind out of the sails. But defensive backfield shortcomings weren’t the big takeaway when it came to the Cougar stop corps in Week 1. No, that was something else …

1. Missed tackles: From the get-go, the Cougars looked like a team that had been tackling stationary dummies in practice rather than fully-moving college athletes. The d-line and linebackers' inability to wrap up allowed running back Paul James to torch the Cougars on the ground, running for 173 yards and three touchdowns. It seemed like Rutgers running backs had an aura surrounding them that made them immune to tackling, such were the number of Rutgers breakaways after contact.

Defensive coordinator Mike Breske said in one of the practices leading up to Rutgers that because of the lack of scrimmaging one has in fall camp, he was most worried about his defense’s ability to wrap up and tackle. He was right, and it wasn’t a case of amazing spin moves or ankle-breaking jukes. James and Co. simply ran the ball up the gut on many occasions and it sometimes took Taylor Taliulu or Daquawn Brown to help from the top or the side, respectively, in order to make a stop. Whether it was a lack of effort, experience, or athleticism, or something else entirely, it is hard to be sure. But whatever it is, the Cougars didn’t look sure-handed at all when it comes to tackling and it needs an immediate fix.

2. Spraying the field: Connor Halliday spread the love on Thursday night, accurately connecting with 10 different targets at least once. X receiver Vince Mayle was Halliday’s favorite target as Mayle caught 12 passes for 124 yards and a touchdown. Rickey Galvin was wide open a couple of times and Halliday found him for huge gains too, one of which was a 52-yard completion. The longest pass was to Dom Williams for 64 yards. The point of all this is to say that the Cougars have a plethora of threats on their receiving corps if the o-line gives Halliday time. Also, Isiah Myers has not even been mentioned yet, and he had two touchdown receptions and 94 receiving yards in the game out of the Z receiver spot. Clearly, Myers and Kristoff Williams have solidified their standing over Gabe Marks on the depth chart, so much so that Marks wasn't ever going to play -- he wasn't part of the travel squad who made the trip to Seattle. Realistically, the Cougars looked just fine without their leading receiver from last season, making room for new leading receivers this season.

3. Halliday can take a hit: Those extra 20 pounds Halliday added in the offseason leading up to fall camp were necessary in the game against Rutgers. While the offensive line protected him well for the majority of the game, there were a few times defenders passed through the blockers and found Halliday in the backfield. One of those hits was particularly gruesome, a fourth quarter sack that hurt just to watch, so one can only imagine how it felt.

Halliday got up limping and hobbled over to the sideline, but stayed in. If not, Luke Falk would have made his first career appearance in college football game. On the very next play, Halliday proved why bulking up was so useful. The redshirt senior quarterback fired a pass to Isiah Myers for a touchdown that made the score 31-24 and showed everyone his resilience.

4. One special teams miscue, one unsecured catch can make all the difference: Special teams coach Eric Russell has said ball security is the most important factor in deciding who returns kicks and punts on special teams. The Cougars have been unable to catch punts cleanly in practices, and that has translated into games. Of course, turnovers are costly and often deadly on special teams, and the latter was true of River Cracraft’s punt return attempt in the fourth quarter. It’s something WSU and Russell must get shored up, along with a better feel for when to call for a fair catch.

On the Cougs’ final offensive series, Cracraft had a catch stripped away on fourth-and-13, which would have extended the drive to potentially tie or win the game. It was a difficult grab above his head, but one that Cracraft was able to secure for a brief moment before being knocked away. So yes, it would have been a tough catch. But it’s also one Cracraft would undoubtedly tell you he needs to make. Eight receptions for 83 yards and a touchdown doesn’t sound like a stat line of a guy who had a rough game, but nevertheless, that was ultimately Cracraft’s story on Thursday.

But also keep in mind that freshman cornerback Marcellus Pippins has looked demonstrably worse in practice and has had far more difficulty fielding punts than has Cracraft. In my mind, the Cougars need more punt return/special teams practice time this week. It’s always tough to get enough special teams work in, but my take is that the Cougs simply need to make the time.

5. Long road ahead: The Cougars made far too many fundamental mistakes against a very beatable Rutgers team. This was a game the Cougars needed to win, and should have won. As a result, there’s more angst that comes into play with a schedule that includes Oregon, USC, Stanford and Arizona State. ESPN Gameday almost certainly won’t be coming to Pullman this year and if the fundamentals of tackling, blocking and being assignment perfect don’t get hammered in and soon, enough Cougar wins won’t be coming this year either.

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