Everything that went wrong in the opener has already been broken down to the most minute detail. That is why I am going to take this moment to provide my silver lining to what is arguably the worst loss in Cougar Football history. This was the first game of the season and with 11 more weeks to go, Washington State has a chance to rewrite the script for 2015.
My top 3 reasons to be optimistic heading into Rutgers:
1) Luke Falk was as advertised. If anyone wants to lay this one at his feet, go back and take a look at the film again. Falk was as in control of that game as anyone could have asked. Not only was it 44 degrees and raining, but Portland State consistently dropped eight men into coverage. The Air Raid isn’t going to get off the ground in those sort of conditions. Instead of forcing the issue, Falk utilized the run game and his check downs.
WSU had 14 first downs in the first half and outpaced the Vikings in time of possession by 11 minutes. There were three easy third-down conversions dropped by his receivers, two in the second half. He did an excellent job of stepping up into the pocket to deliver throws and used his legs when he had to. Falk even paid the ultimate price by sacrificing his body on the final drive for a must-have first down.
In my opinion, the most impressive moment for Falk followed the muffed punt by Kyrin Priester and go ahead touchdown for Portland State. He responded with a touchdown drive that included a fourth-and-five conversion in the red zone to Gabe Marks to tie the game up. I firmly believe, had he not been injured, Falk would have taken the Cougs down to score again on the final drive.
There are always going to be ups and downs as a young quarterback. However, I believe that Falk showed on Saturday why he will be successful at Washington State. He had command of the offense at the line of scrimmage, showed incredible resiliency and demonstrated a toughness that his teammates will respect.
2) The Cougar running backs were sublime. An interesting dynamic to watch throughout the year will be Washington State’s willingness to run the football versus its desire to put up stats. At halftime, the Cougars were beating Portland State 10-0, leading in first downs 14-4, possessed the ball 20 minutes and led in total offense 274-66. Despite some red zone miscues, Washington State was dominating the game.
In the first game of the year, in less than ideal playing conditions, the Cougars should have been happy getting out of there with a win any way they could get it. Yet as Mike Leach came off the field he professed to the Pac-12 sideline reporter that the WSU offense was “running a lot of plays and not getting much out of them.” I actually looked at the first half a different way, I felt like the Cougs were in complete control. The main reason I felt that way was the play of the three Washington State running backs: Gerard Wicks, Jamal Morrow and Keith Harrington.
Wicks, in particular, was outstanding. He provided a number of tough runs, including one on fourth-and-two where he broke multiple tackles and willed his way to a first down. Harrington provided a little extra spark and showed how versatile he can be catching the ball out of the backfield. Yet, in the second half the Cougars went away from the running game on first down and in crucial short yardage situations.
Leach has to continue to find a way to creatively use all three of his backs. In addition, WSU has to be willing to lean on these guys to grind out tough games when the defense dictates it through their alignment.
3) It's still just one game of 12. No, the Cougars should have never lost to Portland State. But they did, and now it’s time to move on. Mkristo Bruce and me just this week relived a moment on our WSU Football Podcast from the 2003 season when that team lost a game in Week Two we should have won at Notre Dame, yet were able to right the ship and get to the Holiday Bowl. It is an important lesson as this team has two very winnable games against Rutgers and Wyoming coming up.
If they can come out of this three game stretch 2-1, there is some real hope. Let me bring you back to just a year ago, in 2014, when we as fans would have given anything for two wins out of PSU, Rutgers and Nevada. Following this 2015 non-conference schedule is a tough Pac-12 slate but as we saw in the first week, every Pac-12 team has holes.
I see some very, very winnable games against Oregon State, Colorado and Washington. In addition, if WSU can respond to the adversity they faced in Week One, they have a chance to steal a game or two along the way against Cal, Stanford and Arizona State.
But this week at Rutgers is going to provide a clear window into what this 2015 Washington State football team is all about. The Scarlet Knights are reeling from a myriad of issues. Everything we have heard this offseason from Mike Leach and Co. is that WSU is a tougher, more disciplined, more talented team.
On Saturday, the Cougs found a way to back themselves into a corner at the very start of the season. Yet if this is the team we were told it is, then I have little doubt they will go to New Jersey and come home with a victory.
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