Now, the Washington State football program must shift its focus and move on from one of its all-time greats. Luke Falk is the man now and I was very impressed with how he handled himself in a tough situation on Saturday. It is never easy coming off the bench as a quarterback, especially against a good defense like USC’s. The silver lining to the injury is that Falk will now get quality game reps, and Mike Leach gets to see if he is his quarterback of the future.
Unfortunately, the QB situation is nowhere near this team's biggest issue. Here is my take on a few of the things the Cougs must address over the next three weeks to finish this season on a positive note, and point themselves toward a winning season in 2015.
Special Teams: Might as well beat this dead horse along with everyone else. The WSU coverage and return teams have been atrocious. They must not only improve, but improve significantly, if the Cougs ever want to compete at a high level. In my opinion, this fix is probably more long term than short.
You can scheme up special teams as much as you want, but if you don't have the athletes on the field you don't stand a chance. Washington State must continue to recruit better to improve its depth across the board. And when I say “athletes,” I’m also talking about guys who want to play special teams as much as they want to breathe the air. There must be more passion and dedication, from the players, towards special teams.
In the short term there needs to be an increased emphasis on lane discipline and kick location. The Cougars have consistently been beaten with field returns when trying to kick into the boundary. This is a product of poor kicks that don't pin the returner close enough to the sideline and/or field contain players that take bad angles to the ball carrier. Player discipline appears to be a major issue on these units.
Defense: It’s a broken record at this point but this unit continues to be a disappointment. The frequency with which the Cougar back end blows zone coverage is the most troubling issue for me. Again, a major lack of discipline by the players out on the field. A couple of plays early in the game really stood out to me:
On the first touchdown pass, the Trojans ran a fairly basic route combination. They sent the slot receiver deep on a corner route while the outside receiver (Juju Smith) appeared to run a short inside hook route. They also ran the tailback out of the backfield on a swing route to the same side. USC wanted to give the impression they were running a "Smash" or "Snag" concept with the outside receiver, but then he broke to the middle of the field.
WSU middle linebacker Darryl Monroe rushed to cover the tailback instead of staying patient in his zone and trusting that the defender outside him would do his job. This allowed Smith to walk in untouched for the second score of the game.
The other one occurred in the second quarter and led to a USC field goal. The Trojans lined up with a "Wing" set (receiver aligned offset and behind a tight end) to the field and motioned to get two wide receivers to the boundary. USC was trying to run a fake WR screen to the weak side and throw it deep but the Cougs covered it well. Unfortunately, to the wide side of the field, the corner got lazy and allowed Nelson Agholar, the Trojans' most dangerous weapon, to run right past him.
The USC coaching staff attacked the Cougar defense by challenging their discipline. They knew play action pass and double moves would cause the defensive backs to peek in the backfield or jump routes, allowing their receivers to make big plays down the field.
The most frustrating part of this is that there hasn’t been improvement in these areas through nine games. It would be a much different story if the Cougars were simply getting beat one on one in man coverage, but the majority of big plays are coming from missed assignments or lack of awareness.
The Buy In: I know that Coach Leach says he is still trying to establish a culture but it is getting increasingly difficult to watch players leave the WSU program in Year Three. There is always an element of turnover with a new coach but three years in, I would feel much more comfortable if more it was 100 percent clear that everyone had really bought in to this staff. But there are, I believe, too many players who don't fully understand the process these coaches are looking for.
I also find it troubling that players' mental toughness is still being questioned after losses. Moving on from bad plays is as much about player development by coaches as it is about the player holding himself accountable. Everyone needs to be looking, harder, into the mirror in that regard.
The true test of the players' commitment will come in these next three games. It would be very easy to shut it down because they are out of bowl contention. And if the Cougars have truly bought in, they will come out and do everything they can to dominate the next three weeks. Pride, passion and effort are what I am going to be looking for over these last three games.
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 the past two seasons with Montreal. He also is the head quarterbacks coach for the Barton Football Academy based in Portland and does a weekly Pac-12 podcast. He can be found on twitter at @AlexBrink10.