Although the Vikings have gone on to prove that they are a pretty good football team, that game still should have been a clear and decisive win for Washington State. Following the loss, everyone in and around the program knew there had to be improvement in all three phases if this team was going to compete in the Pac-12.
In the dominating win against Oregon State on Saturday, a game that featured 45 first half WSU points and a solid defensive effort, three things really stood out to me -- andd they show the Cougars are making strides in the right direction.
1) Defensive discipline
What really scared me about the matchup against the Beavers: they run a spread offense with an athletic quarterback and feature solid running backs. It was eerily similar to what Portland State looked like on offense in Week 1. The OSU coaches could have looked at the film from six weeks ago and had their game plan written for them. Right off the bat, it looked like they did just that.
OSU started the game with multiple quarterback runs from fly sweep motion, just like Portland State did. The difference was the Washington State defense is playing with much more discipline at this point in the season -- rarely did you see two men chase the fly sweep motion. Peyton Pelluer did an excellent job stepping up and filling when Seth Collins would try to run between the tackles.
Some other young Cougar defensive players also showed they are maturing quickly in Alex Grinch's defense. Shalom Luani is clearly settling in at the free safety position. Outside of his two interceptions I was very impressed by his ability to quickly diagnose plays and come up in support of the run.And he wrapped up far better than the previous week at Oregon.
Nickel/LB Logan Tago is another new face on the defense who caught my eye, he showed great discipline on an OSU series at the start of the second quarter. The Beavers tried to run a fly sweep right at him but instead of crashing down and losing contain, he maintained outside leverage and made the tackle on the receiver.
On second down, OSU faked a fly sweep away from him and tried to throw a screen to his side. Once again, instead of chasing what was right in front of him, Tago diagnosed the play and batted the ball down. This type of growth by the young players on defense is one of the big reasons the Cougars are improving on that side of the ball.
2) Starting fast
One of the frustrating things with the Washington State offense early in the season is that it took awhile for them to get in a rhythm. The last three weeks have seen the Cougars start much faster, with this past Saturday the best of all. Luke Falk and the rest of the WSU offense were as sharp as we have seen all year. This played a huge role because it got Oregon State out of their game plan very quickly.
On defense, the Beavers wanted to bring pressure to try and get to Falk. The WSU offensive line did a great job picking up the blitzes and Falk was getting the ball out of his hand on time. Once the Cougars beat the blitz a few times, Oregon State started to play more conservative -- which allowed WSU utilize its entire play book.
Offensively, it was clear the Beavers were going to try to run the football and use Seth Collins’ athleticism against Washington State. However, once they were down a few scores OSU had to try to throw the ball, which is not their strength. The Cougars were able to consistently put them in third-and-long situations and Oregon State struggled to find a rhythm all day.
3) Multiplicity on offense.
Right before our eyes these past six games we have seen the Washington State offense become incredibly multiple. Not only do they run the football more, but Mike Leach and the rest of the offensive staff have become very creative with their play design. They are doing a great job of getting their playmakers touches in many different ways.
Gabe Marks, Dom Williams and River Cracraft are always going to be Falk’s "go to" guys. However, Washington State is keeping teams off balance by finding ways to get Tavares Martin and Kyrin Priester the ball in unique ways. My favorite example came with just over eight minutes left in the second quarter.
The Cougars lined up in their version of a “full house” with all three running backs in the backfield with Falk. The last two weeks WSU has had a lot of success running from this formation. On this play, the ball was handed off on what looked like an outside run, but the running back flipped the ball to Martin on a reverse. Martin was actually going to pull up and throw but Oregon State played it well -- Martin was forced to run but because he is such a dynamic athlete was able to get a first down.
These types of plays force opposing defenses to spend time in practice preparing for things that are not necessarily the bread and butter of the Washington State offense.
This is important because the Cougars do not run a large number of different pass concepts. If a defense is worried about the one time WSU might run a reverse, they are less focused on the basic offensive plays.
As Washington State continues to grow, we are seeing maturity on both sides of the ball. The win against Oregon State was important because the Cougars executed like they should have and as expected. They are starting to become much more consistent. Heading to a tough two game stretch with Arizona and Stanford this is going to be vitally important.
Both of those offenses provide unique challenges and the defenses are much better than what WSU saw the last two weeks. But if the Cougs can stay disciplined, start fast and continue to be innovative on offense, they will be able to find success - starting this week in the desert.
ABOUT ALEX BRINK: He authors this hugely popular weekly column during the season on Cougfan.com but once upon a time, Alex Brink was the starting quarterback at Washington State. And from 2004-2007, he threw 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 five years in the Canadian Football League: three campaigns with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (2010-12) followed by two seasons in Montreal (2013-14). He is the quarterbacks coach at Lakeridge High in Lake Oswego, Ore., and does a weekly Pac-12 podcast. He can be found on twitter at @AlexBrink10.