What you missed in WSU’s historic loss

BEFORE WE ALL move on to thinking about Week 2 opponent Rutgers, and despite what many in Cougar Nation have suggested, Washington State's loss to Portland State was not a tragedy. The sinking of the Titanic – that was a tragedy. Let’s put things in perspective, people. No, what happened Saturday out on the Palouse wasn’t a tragedy. It was worse.

But first, let’s talk about something positive. Because these things always get forgotten in a loss, and they get buried under six feet of monkey dung after a really bad loss like the one on Saturday.

The opening WSU drive was a stunner. Seven runs. Four passes. Who the hell are you and what have you done with Mike Leach?

And they were productive runs (45 hashes, 6.4 ypc). The Cougs marched down the field. Jamal Morrow had three carries to Gerard Wicks’ four – wasn’t expecting that ratio either (pictured above, Wicks).

A familiar bugaboo popped up on the first two WSU drives, though – the inability to finish drives off, to get enough points for all those yards. The Cougs mounted a 20-play, 93-yard drive to go along with the opening 11-play, 71-yard drive. And WSU only got three points out of 'em.

The Air Raid is proficient enough that the Cougars will convert many fourth down tries, but you can’t convert them all and when the Cougs turn the ball over on down inside field goal range, that’s been a killer the last three years-plus – and it was again Saturday.

With WSU dominating the first half time of possession but only leading 10-0 at the break, the Cougars went to the air more in the second half, ostensibly trying to put this one to bed. A 21-point third quarter would have done it.

Hindsight is always 20-20, but this is where WSU’s impatience backfired.

Consider that 12 of Wicks’ 14 carries came in the first half. All eight of Morrow’s carries came in the first two quarters. The two WSU running backs had a combined 22 carries for 99 hashes (4.5 ypc). What might have been if WSU had run more in the second half? Coulda, woulda, shoulda.

BUT THAT ALL PALES in comparison to the WSU defensive front, and the effect it had on the game. At the end of the first half, if you had only the stats to look at – with PSU managing but 66 total yards of offense – you'd have surmised things were going swimmingly up front for Joe Salave'a's crew. You would have been very, very wrong.

Despite PSU’s lack of first half yardage, despite a few WSU sacks, tackles for loss and Cougar gang tackles, it had been laid plain for anyone who zeroed in on WSU's d-line play over the first 30 minutes.

The Cougs got stood up plenty in that first half by the PSU o-line. Shockingly so. The Cougar D didn’t fly to the football either, not like they had over so many fall practices, as Leach mentioned after the game. And so in the third quarter PSU began to roll on offense – and it was because the Cougar defensive front let them believe in the first half.

BY THE WAY, Leach has always been a cipher after the game – his tone, his expression, it’s pretty much the same whether the Cougs win or lose. But after watching Leach's post-game pressers and interviews the past three years, it was clear to me Leach was just as stunned as was Cougar Nation on Saturday.

And that actually should be good news for Cougar fans – the ’15 crimson vintage has played at a far, far higher level in every practice since Aug. 8. They laid an egg on Saturday but Leach and the coaches fully believe they’re capable of far, far better after what they've seen the past month on the field. So there’s legitimate hope we won't see more of the same next Saturday at Rutgers.

Before we get there, the defense has a lot of soul searching to do this week. Offense and special teams do too, but if you can’t stop an FCS team from running the ball down your throat – an FCS team the media projected to finish 12th in the 13-team Big Sky conference – you need to spend some quality time in front of a mirror this week.

The whole Cougar football program does, coaches and players and alike. Put it this way: Guatemala president Otto Pérez Molina resigned in disgrace a few days ago, facing charges stemming from an alleged massive, multi-million-dollar customs fraud ring. And Molina still had a better Saturday than did the Cougs.

  • Y receiver River Cracraft did not have a ball thrown his way until 3:18 remained in the first half. Some of that had to do with the first half emphasis on the running game and Gabe Marks’ day, sure. But Cracraft had only two catches on Saturday for 26 hashes. Given his ability to move the chains, that feels like it was probably one of the big regrets on offense coming out of film review.

  • With WSU trailing 17-10 in the fourth quarter, Tavares Martin would have gone to the house and ended WSU’s KO return for TD drought (2013) had not a Portland State defender grabbed his facemask and pulled him to the ground – the last PSU defender had no chance given his angle on Martin. The Cougs still scored the equalizer 11 plays later but the momentum swing that would have come with a scintillating 95-yard Martin TD return could have been big.

  • Speaking of big, Z receiver Marks was at his best in his first game back since 2013. I often took issue with Marks’ trash talking his first two years -- he always seemed a heartbeat away from getting a 15-yard unsportsmanlike flag. But hats off to Marks on Saturday, he was the biggest reason the Cougs still had a chance to win it in the fourth quarter (six rec., 76 yards, 1 TD).

  • No one will remember it but Wicks had the best run I’ve seen since Leach arrived in Pullman and it only went for four yards. Wicks shrugged off six – yes, six – would-be tacklers to gain four yards on a fourth-and-two to keep WSU’s second drive alive. What I will remember just as much about Wicks, though, is how fast he got to the edge on Saturday. He was gaining the corner far, far quicker than he did last year – something that bodes well for this season and dare I say, next Saturday against Rutgers.

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