COMMENTARY: Searching for WSU special teams

IT WOULD HAVE made for a great story but no, Washington State didn't win the special teams battle against Stanford. But you still had to tip your cap to the Cougars because of how they stormed into it, full throttle, as if to say, 'This is the way we're going to play special teams, let's get it on.'

WSU didn't experience another special teams disaster on Friday but Stanford had a fine night in the return game. WSU kicked to Ty Montgomery, perhaps defiantly. Unfortunately for Cougar fans, he responded with 134 yards on a combined six kickoff and punt returns, (3 KOs: 71 yds; 3 punts: 63).

The Cougars nearly matched his three kickoff returns with three of their own - Vince Mayle posted 67 yards on three returns. River Cracraft returned only one punt, but it went for a healthy 12 yards.

Erik Powell's kickoffs were short and Stanford's kicker booted four of his seven for touchbacks. But WSU K Quentin Breshears bounced back from the Cal game by drilling a 46-yard field goal, the longest on the season for WSU. And Stanford's kicker missed from 37, with makes from 22- and 34-yards.

So Stanford won the special teams battle, but it wasn't the blowout it has been in previous weeks.

The biggest special teams negative against Stanford came with the decision to try an onside kick. The game turned with Stanford's ensuing drive for a touchdown.

But it is the special teams coverage units, particularly the gunners, where WSU needs a shot in the arm.

More and more college football players in the two-deeps these days seem less eager to play on special teams. Mayle and Jeremiah Allison are becoming more the exception. It is harder these days to find the Deone Bucannon's, Erik Coleman's, Jason David's and Marcus Trufant's. Leach said during the practice week if there are WSU players who don't embrace playing special teams, they shouldn't be playing football.

And that's true. But WSU has, for years and before Leach arrived, struggled at times with that desire, (Bill Doba lamented it way back in 2004.) The Cougs aren't alone in this, neither in the Pac-12 nor in college football as a whole, but that's not the point.

Based on conversations I've had with long-time observers of the program, there are players on this team who could be better helping shore up Wazzu's special teams if -- if -- they embraced it with the same vigor and enthusiasm they do in battling for a starting job on offense or defense.

It's something the Cougars need to get squared away and it's something that can't wait. There are five games left this season, and any one of them can turn on a special teams play, or plays.

If and when you have a program that truly reloads, you'll have more non-starting talent in the redshirt-freshmen and sophomore ranks to excel on special teams without dipping far into the starters and two-deeps. But not too many teams get to that point and if they do, it's hard to sustain it. You're ahead of the game if you can get there for just a season or two.

Good special teams will always be heavily dependent on the best, most athletic, most driven players. Indeed, special teams is far more about desire than it is anything else, a longtime Pac-10 coach one told me. With five games left it's time for the Cougars, all the Cougars, to desire to be great on special teams.

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