Day 4: WSU offense continues to sharpen

LEWISTON -- The fourth day of Washington State preseason drills went to the offense, as quarterbacks Luke Falk and Peyton Bender each produced a strong showing. With temperatures cracking 100 Tuesday, the quarterbacks looked good in part because of stellar play from some of the receivers, and in particular John Thompson and Kyle Sweet.

One player missing from most of the day's drills was River Cracraft. He participated in the tennis ball catch, some 7-on-7, and he was the placekick holder during field goal practice. After holding for the kickers, Cracraft jogged over to the white trainer's tent. Cracraft later came out to do some individual deep route running, but only lasted a few snaps before making his way to the stationary bike.

Even without Cracraft, the offense performed well. Sweet stepped up and had a pretty big day. Sweet received numerous shout-outs from coaches during a bubble screen drill as he drove his defender back and to the ground a few times.

Later at the start of team play, Bender hit him for an 80-yard touchdown pass. We’ll touch on that later, but it was another example that the Cougars have receivers to spare who can make plays. During a one-on-one period for the wide receivers, Thompson won all but two match-ups, one against Shalom Luani and one against Parker Henry.

“I think Thompson played really well today, he was one of the best inside guys,” Mike Leach said. “He was the best ‘Y’ receiver we had today.”

During the skeleton drill the offense had success, but the defense closed the gap near the end. Falk started with a touchdown to Tyler Baker. He then overthrew Dom Williams, and Willie Roach nearly picked it off.

The next play he hit Robert Lewis in stride for a 30-yard touchdown play. Bender didn’t have a great time in the skeleton, but also didn’t throw an interception. He and Williams had a miscommunication as Bender threw to the front left pylon, and Williams was headed for the middle of the field. The offense had a 43-31 lead as the team headed for the goal line portion, though the defense closed to within 51-50 at the finish.

“We don’t necessarily look at going out to win day four but to put ourselves in a good position when the real bullets start flying when the season starts,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said.

As the team started 11-on-11, Bender was up first for the fourth straight day, but this was his best outing yet. As mentioned, he hit Sweet for a touchdown. Sweet did an excellent job getting open on the right side, and then cut left and took off up the left sideline. Great blocks from Kyrin Priester and Gabe Marks set Sweet free. The offense then sputtered as Bender was swatted at the line of scrimmage, followed by a loss of two yards on a Morrow running play. Later, Bender’s pocket collapsed around him resulting in a sack, getting the defense to within two points. Four plays later, Bender was sacked again evening the score at 9. Bender did throw one touchdown pass while in the red zone, a 6-yarder to Baker.

“The biggest thing for these quarterbacks is to keep simple things simple,” Leach said. “Don’t over-think things, and take pride in your precision.”

Although Bender only had two scores, his presence was improved over Monday, and he remained composed. Falk took over with with a 13-10 lead. On his second play, Peyton Pelluer nearly intercepted Falk, but the pass was dropped.

The defense stood their ground on the next two plays before Gerard Wicks went 20 yards after busting through the line and breaking two tackles. Falk then went to a little dinking and dunking before he audibled into a run play, which allowed Harrington to score a touchdown on a 25-yard burst. That gave the offense a 25-16 lead, though the defense closed to 26-20 at the end of 11-on-11.

“Keith is pretty much full speed all the time, but it’s nice to see him pick it up when other backs also step it up,” Leach said. “He started at receiver, but he’s got a better sense of timing at running back.”

Although the defense struggled to stop the offense from picking up points, Grinch’s run to the ball mindset was evident.

Defenders were flying throughout the field and brought intensity during the day. Quarterbacks didn’t have an easy day.

“We need to keep communicating and making sure everyone is talking to make sure the players are all on the same page,” Grinch said. “The buy-in from the older guys has really helped, and it allows the younger guys to have a great example to watch.”

The team didn't make excuses about Tuesday's withering heat, but at times fatigue could be seen on the players faces as the temperature stayed in the high 90s to 100s throughout practice.

“It’s the hottest day we’ve had out here,” Leach said. “It’s good work to learn to be sharp in the tough conditions. It’s important to make sure the players get enough water too.”

The team had their second straight day with shoulder pads. Wednesday, the Cougars are scheduled go to full pads as the high heat continues; in fact, it's projected to reach 108.

  • For the second day, Erik Powell and Brett Schafer kicked well; Matt Abramo continued to be held out of kicking time. Powell and Schafer did not miss much, if at all, during practice. Hard to tell from some angles, though.

  • The team also practiced kick returns with full coverage and blocking schemes set up. The positive: Harrington and Priester ran back two of the three kickoffs for touchdowns. The negative: clearly there is still work to be done on the Cougars' kick coverage.

  • The team worked on gunner training on punts. No actual punts were attempted, but the blocking for gunners was laid out.

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