6 Takeaways from Cougs' Day in Spokane

WHEN IT COMES to first impressions of Washington State spring game Saturday in Spokane, the “starting” five on the offensive line turned in a fairly solid day's work, even if they weren’t all playing on the same team. Meanwhile, the story that captured the imagination of so many earlier this month, a Mike Leach quarterback under center some of the time, was mostly a non-event.

1. The QB under center idea is ... what?

The two offenses ran a combined 141 plays and but a handful featured this spring season's big reveal - the introduction of the WSU quarterback under center. So is this something that needs to be perfected in August before fully shared in public? The Cougs are one of the few Pac-12 teams that ran an actual spring game this April – was Mike Leach wary of showing too much on film? Is it just an experiment, one now seeing lukewarm enthusiasm on the part of Leach? Is it just a once- or twice-a-game wrinkle aimed at forcing opposing teams to use practice time on it? There are more questions than answers headed into May, and it will remain that way until fall camp and the season opener.

2. The “starting” OL looked fairly solid, but not perfect

We'll have to look at the tape a few more times but it seemed much of the pressure on Gray QB Peyton Bender came from his left side on Saturday, and much of the pressure on Crimson QB Luke Falk came from his right. Bender's right side was manned by returning starters Cole Madison and Eduardo Middleton while Falk's left side was held down by returning starters Joe Dahl and Gunnar Eklund. The centers (with an exception here and there) looked to grade out pretty well -- Riley Sorenson for the Crimson and Sam Flor/Carlos Freeman for the Gray. That said, there was no blitzing in the spring game. And the Cougar D rushing only four surely got further upfield more frequently than o-line coach Clay McGuire would have liked.

3. The defensive front looked surprisingly salty

The three Ds on the starting defensive line -- Destiny Vaeao, Daniel Ekuale and Darryl Paulo -- did some damage. That helped out the secondary. If the QB has a firm pocket on Saturday, he’s more apt to complete some of those deep balls. But with the pocket shrinking and pressure coming, some would-be completions were instead knocked away, errant throws or were picked. What also stood out about the guys up front – RUSH players Ivan McLennan and Reggie Coates included, was the get-off. Was that fast burst off the snap mostly a function of learning the cadence and snap count of the Cougar offense this spring, and therefore not something to likely be repeated during the season, or is it an indicator of something to come in 2015? Defensively as a whole, the Cougs wrapped up nicely for the most part – with 70 solo tackles (40 assisted stops).

4. The running game looked familiar

Gerard Wicks ripped off nine yards on his first carry, but only 21 hashes on the next nine touches. There’s been some chatter the Cougars may look to run more by going under center and in adding Keith Harrington to a mix that features an improved Gerard Wicks. We can probably put that to rest. Mike Leach called 103 passes and 21 runs on Saturday, providing more of an argument the Cougs will continue to be among the national leaders in passes attempted, and among the fewest in rushing attempts. That said, Leach has always wanted his running backs to be among the league leaders in all-purpose yards -- and Harrington had a game-high 10 grabs for 58 yards on Saturday. The big issue isn’t how many touches the running backs get, it’s for WSU to cap off more drives in the end zone. WSU was No. 2 in total offense this past season (519.5) but only seventh in scoring (31.8) and ninth in red zone offense.

5. The QB battle will continue with a frontrunner

Let’s just make it clear -- Falk holds the edge at quarterback in his battle with Bender. Falk on Saturday resisted the urge all quarterbacks feel -- to force the throw when it’s not there. Bender took more chances, and should have been picked off more than his two interceptions. Leach probably said it best earlier this spring -- Falk does a great job in managing the offense and limiting mistakes. He can improve on throwing it away or getting on the move to buy some time when needed. Bender locked onto his targets too much and rather than go through his progressions when they weren’t open, he stayed on them and tried to make it work. But you can also point to Bender’s 38-yard TD pass to Daniel Lilienthal as a perfect example (and perfect throw) of reasons to get behind the second-year freshman. Keep in mind neither QB had River Cracraft to throw to, probably the best of all WSU receivers at extending drives and moving the chains.

6. Special teams, what we saw of them, not special
Kicker Matt Abramo arrives later this summer and he’ll get every chance to win the job. Erik Powell is your field goal kicker right now – he’s been the most consistent this spring and made a 42-yard field goal on Saturday. Quentin Breshears had a nightmare day, banking a low liner off the left upright from 31-yards out and shanking a miss from 20-yards. Keep in mind there was no rush on extra point or field goal attempts on Saturday. A spring game rarely has punts or kickoffs and the Cougs’ Saturday featured none of those. It goes without saying WSU needs a major performance boost across the board in 2015, and especially on coverage units, after a horrific season on special teams last year.

NOTABLE NOTE:
We'd be remiss if we didn't mention wideout Dom Williams was the game's star, with eight catches for 164 yards and two TDs.

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